Friday, March 09, 2007

Academic freedom and political correctness

Happy brain note: Digging around on Schroedinger's Equation with Ryan this morning after yesterday's dinner conversation with Chris Morse (apparently, this equation has something to do with stable arrangements of electrons in valence shells), we found the usage of Bra-Ket notation, which Raymond was talking about the previous day in the MetaOlin communications module. I'm now trying to figure out what the heck Bra-Ket notation is and how it's applied to both realms.

And an interesting tidbit on academic freedom from the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article was discussing the Larry Summers and Ward Churchill cases. Churchill was a professor at U Colorado Boulder when he wrote an essay describing the WTC workers on 9/11 as "Little Eichmanns," claiming they were not just innocent victims, but proponents of the unfair capitalist system that led to the unrest that led to the attack - essentially, that they "deserved" it. Naturally, controversy ensued, as well as discussions on the relationship between politics and academia.

...when political matters do enter an academic setting, they must do so in academic terms.

A few years ago, a national conference was held at my university on an important topic. A flier advertising the conference went out before I saw it. One sentence in that flier began, "Now that we are fighting a racist war in Afghanistan ... " Because the flier carried with it the imprimatur of the University of Illinois at Chicago, it seemed to be the university that was issuing that judgment.

The case would have been entirely different if there had been a list of the conference's panels on the flier, and if one of those panels had been titled, "Are We Fighting a Racist War in Afghanistan?" That would have been perfectly appropriate because it would have identified the question as one that would be debated at the conference: Speakers would give their answers and back up what they said with evidence, and other speakers would give opposing answers and cite alternative bodies of evidence. That's what we do in the academic world...

In another section, the article says that Churchill's writing was justifiable grounds for dismissal, but not because of the content of the writing itself; the dismissal (and in fact, the reason Churchill resigned) was not because of what he said, or even because of the public reaction to what he said ("I may disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it") but because of the effect public reaction had on Churchill's ability to do his job. As in, people wouldn't listen to him, he had a hard time speaking, publishing, and so forth - things that were in his job description.

Subtle distinction. Fine line. Strange interactions happen between academic and political, academic and religious, academic and social, legal... academic and despite (or because of) our effects to separate them. This is tremendously interesting, but very difficult to deal with (to make a broad, sweeping understatement).

Another great section, this one on how universities deal with controversial speakers or topics:

The idea is to inoculate the institution from criticism by multiplying the points of view represented so that no one of them seems to be endorsed or valued. The model for that strategy is to be found in those U.S. Supreme Court cases in which it was held that you couldn't put a cross or a crèche on the courthouse steps unless you placed next to it a menorah or a Buddha or a wigwam or something. In that way, the state gets to display those symbols -- and its tolerance -- without taking any of them seriously. But that's just the trouble. The academy flourishes when it takes ideas seriously...


I've been struggling with the concept of how to spread ideas. If you get them to a mass-producible form, it's easy to distribute them without actually meaning it, without transforming people. On the other hand, if you work person to person, slowly and patiently... sometimes you can't wait for things to happen that quickly, so you have to institutionalize them, suck the life out of much of it, mass-produce it and hand leaflets around. You institute rules that people follow blindly. You discourage people from taking ideas seriously because the rules have made the decisions for them already. (I know, this is a black and white view of things, incomplete, leaves out all sorts of stuff, and I don't agree with this model myself.)

But in the face of a world where you can reach the whole world - or most of it, an increasingly large percentage of it - with one click, in the face of a world where one speech can have political, social, economical, religious, all these implications for billions of people spread through different continents - how do you teach? How do you learn? How do you create environments - universities, schools - conducive to the kind of teaching and learning and life in general you'd like the world to have?

I'm rambling vaguely now, so I'll sign off and go for my meeting now.

1 comment:

Nikki said...

In regards to the Schrodinger, I can show you the stuff Chris gave us in class, if you think that might be helpful.