Comments on "Academic Freedom in Times of War"
H. Rubin, Professor of Economics and Law
Klehr, Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History
are we here?
Devin Stewart, Associate Professor and
Chair, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies
Goldman, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies
freedom under attack
Kristen Brustad, Associate Professor of Middle Eastern and South
are we here?
Devin Stewart, Associate Professor and Chair, Department of
Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies
We are here at the university
to transform ourselves. We are here to learn, to create new knowledge,
to refine and add to humanity’s common heritage. We are here
to be excited, enriched, and changed by that knowledge. We are not
here to remind ourselves leisurely of what is already familiar,
to confirm our accepted ideas, or to feel good about ourselves as
we already are.
Our fundamental task, in my opinion, is to learn how to argue fairly
and responsibly. We are here to engage in intellectual debate and
inquiry, and learning the process is much more important than adopting
any individual view. This process involves being
willing to hear, analyze, and comprehend opinions we do not share.
It involves understanding that debates are rarely simple or clear-cut,
that they take time. Contested issues can seldom be reduced to simple
binary oppositions, canned ceremonies where two pre-determined sides
merely gainsay one another, where the audience serves as a cheering
squad and no one learns from the exchange. We must think hard about
the terms of debate and tease out the various aspects of difficult
questions rather than making blanket generalizations and over-simplifications.
We must argue the points rather than making emotional appeals. We
must use evidence rather than hearsay. And we must abide by rules
of logic and decorum.
Intelligent and effective debate requires adherence to certain ground
rules. Intimidation, harassment, ad hominem attacks, and attributing
guilt by association all work against proper debate. Disagreement
and criticism, however, are normal aspects of debate, and it is
an unfortunate aspect of our times and our culture that many of
us are unable to deal with disagreement and criticism effectively.
We prefer to block out opinions that disturb us or contradict our
accepted views. Some go so far as to view criticism of their preconceived
notions as a form of assault, claiming the right to be protected
by the university or the public from disturbing ideas. But we are
at the university to hear new and potentially disturbing ideas.
Our task is to learn how to evaluate and criticize them logically
and responsibly, as best we can, rather than avoiding them or, even
worse, crying injustice at having been exposed to them in the first
Intelligent debates require both time and developed skills of interpretation.
Unfortunately, political slogans, newspaper headlines, and sound
bites do not allow for the sophistication and attention most thorny
issues require. Indeed, society’s collective attention span
seems to have dropped radically over the last few decades. As a
result, serious debate is very difficult to pull off. The presentation
of many views, the frank treatment of controversial or offensive
material, humor, and irony have all become difficult and dangerous
because the public’s ability to understand statements in context,
to distinguish between what a speaker is reporting or critiquing
and the speaker’s own point of view, is shockingly low.
Is there any hope for the university’s mission of intellectual
inquiry? Of course there is. Our only limits, ultimately, are those
of the human mind and human language. At present, both are terribly
under-taxed—mostly being expended, as far as I can tell, on
perfectly inane cell-phone conversations.
The quest for knowledge, however, requires concerted effort and
often involves a certain level of discomfort. It is much easier
to fall back on unreflective responses, comfortable preconceptions,
and expressions of emotion than to engage in meaningful debate.
Reflecting, as we are, on the mission of the university and the
meaning of academic inquiry is an important part of that concerted
effort. Like equality and justice, academic freedom is an ideal
that confronts and often succumbs to the realities of economics,
power, influence, and plain old ignorance. Its fragility notwithstanding,
it must be upheld.