A Circumscribed Debate

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

One of the most profitable pieces of advice I have ever gotten has been Ayn Rand's famous admonition, "Check your premises." It is too bad that this piece of advice is not more commonly understood and accepted in academia, as the following announcement I found at the web site for The Chronicle of Higher Education indirectly demonstrates:

Religious questions can come up in many classes, not just those in the religion department, and the resulting terrain can be difficult for an ill-prepared professor to navigate. Students can object to course assignments on religious or political grounds, and classroom discussions can veer off into realms fraught with pitfalls not mentioned on the syllabus. So what's a faculty member to do? An expert in higher-education law, Barbara A. Lee, will answer questions and share strategies for navigating difficult conversations and controversial topics while teaching, without landing yourself -- or your institution -- in a lawsuit.
What in blazes ever happened to the idea of unfettered inquiry in academia? Since when have professors had to worry about treating their very livelihoods like minefields? Given that so many great ideas have started out as highly controversial ideas championed by only a few, what is today's litigious climate doing to our future?

Not to dismiss the need to learn how to watch one's back as a matter of professional survival for today's academics, but what can such a discussion really accomplish? True, one may or may not leave with an awareness of what topics might unjustly land one in trouble, but I'm quite willing to wager that this state of affairs will be accepted as an immutable status quo, or at least one not subject to rational understanding or amenable to a principled attempt to change it for the better. Because this discussion will focus on the minutiae of legal threats, rather than considering the principles that underly academic freedom, participants will leave feeling armed for battle, perhaps, but with no clue about winning the war.

Why is it that students can "object to course assignments on religious or political grounds" and so easily land their professors in court? Do universities not have property rights and the ability that comes with them to set the parameters of discussion within their own classrooms? And do students not have the right to choose better schools when they learn first-hand or from others that a given school does not tolerate an open exchange of ideas? (And cannot those closed to rational debate form their own schools? Why must all of us live within the limits they accept for themselves?)

These questions will quickly lead one to the fact that most colleges are state-owned and almost all the rest are publicly financed to a significant extent. With such state involvement comes legitimate questions about whether the government should be influencing the debate of ideas. The government has no business funding the propagation of ideas I disagree with at my expense, nor should it be in the business of censoring what individuals say. Unfortunately, when the government runs the classroom, it unavoidably does a little of both, in the process making events in the classroom wide open for litigation. This predictably will have the sort of chilling effect on academic debate that made this seminar necessary in the first place.

The ultimate solution to this problem will be the complete separation of academy and state, something few academics today will entertain seriously, much less come up with themselves. But that is the solution, and those of us willing to ask not only why things are in such a big mess today -- but also whether they have to be that way -- will be the only ones not in the business of shutting down academic debate who feel any real power to act for any purpose beyond mere survival.

The task of separating academy and state, which is just a small part of bringing about a wider cultural awareness of the nature of individual rights and the value of the government protecting them, seems overwhelming, but identifying such a problem is, at least, the first step in solving it.

Survive now, yes. But check your premises. You will learn that living is also an option. To my fellow academics, who almost unanimously think that taking the government out of education will result in nobody being educated (and themselves unable to pursue their own scholarly interests), I ask the following: "Can anyone really be educated when they are not permitted to think about certain subjects? Did you work so hard for all those years just so you could spend your professional life cowering from threats leveled by those with no passion for the truth?"

Today's academy looks increasingly like a well-fed prison to me. That certainly isn't what I had in mind during grad school.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

"An expert in higher-education law"

Wow! We must be a highly advanced culture to benefit from such arcane expertise.

"Scientific-method law" will probably be next. Lawyers have almost perfected the public's unwitting expectation establishing the legal profession as America's de facto royalty. Only the Supreme Court can intervene. Uh oh!

I recall one line in particular from Shakespeare ...

Gus Van Horn said...

"We must be a highly advanced culture to benefit from such arcane expertise. "

If by "advanced", you mean in an advanced state of government micromanagement, I agree.

Richard said...

In Canada, very few academics function without government money obtained by regular application for research funding. The best term for them is "Welfare Scientists".

Of course, the applications must appeal to Welfare Science bureaucrats who a) subscribe to the politically correct research such a funding design is premised upon and b) established themselves in academic careers that were dependent on such welfare. Like the materials mandated by the state for recycling, if their research was truly worthwhile it would not need government intervention to support itself.

Our Federal government alone has 17 different granting agencies. Each province also has its own granting agencies which are slightly less numerous. The damage done, to research direction and to independent scientific thought, is incalculable.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks to the notion that the government should fund research, most academic scientists in America, myself included, depend on the government for at least part of their funding to the extent that it is basically impossible to have such a career without doing so.

This means, among other things, that there is less funding for science from what would be normal sources (no money to donate/no perceived need to) and there is probably much more funding of science than is really needed.

So while there is still good science out there, there is a trend towards the end point you describe, for people get wind of what's 'hot" and will often direct their efforts in that direction, and others become invested in what I call "pet theories" (i.e., indifferent to whether their theory actually describes reality). The philosophical notion that man can't know reality, popular among scientists (who overwhelmingly seem to be both skeptics and dterminists) helps that trend along for obvious reasons.