Concerning our Education: Students and Academic Freedom on Campus

This essay is adapted from an assignment for the “Academic Freedom” course taught in Fall 2019 by Professor Kerry Bystrom.

Surprise, the uneasy sort, motivated me to write the paper that became the article which you are reading. As I sat down to write a response to the workshop & discussion “Truth, Freedom, and the Academy” held at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry last September, I realized that both panelists and audience members had missed something I felt was fundamental. The workshop’s focus was academic freedom and by the end of the conference it seemed we had moved from the loudest and boldest threats to the most subtle, barely perceptible pressures. Erdogan’s television tirades, railing against “criminal” academics, had taken us to contemplations on the difficulty of securing funding within the German university system. Yet we had managed to forget, or avoid discussing, a threat that is hardly nuanced or subtle. It is the threat that we students pose to academic freedom.

In this article I focus specifically on the implications of proposed changes to the curriculum, censorship of literature and speech bans emanating from students. I believe that the consequences of implementing many of the demands originating in student movements are entirely out of sync with the underlying beliefs that drive these demands.  

Issues of inclusion and political correctness have transformed American college campuses over the last few years. Though the concern over waning free speech on campus has been described as overblown, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education finds that one in ten schools has policies that limit free speech to small areas on campus. Students at Yale have petitioned to cut off funding for undesired research and students at Harvard Law School have pressured faculty to restrict teaching and testing on the law of rape or to drop it from the curriculum entirely. Universities around the country have taken to censoring the works of authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and even Shakespeare. The impact of self-censorship by faculty caused by the climate of fear is immeasurable but reported by professors at countless institutions of higher learning. Similarly, a Knight foundation poll from May of this year shows that 68 percent of students surveyed said that the campus climate prevents them from expressing their true opinions. How have we gotten here and where are we going?

Labels have come to wield a peculiar power; in some instances heated debate about the application of labels has come to replace reasoned dialogue about ideas. It is tempting to believe that discussions about whether or not a text, speech or Youtube clip is “neo-colonial” or “neo-fascist” demonstrate understanding and engagement with real content and offer a strong basis for action. Labels introduce the prospect of finality, an absolute judgement on subject matter. All of this while maintaining complexity, as well as objectivity, and most importantly: all an illusion. 

Labels are a semantic tool that eases transmission of knowledge but they don’t transport knowledge itself, only connotations. Labels do not define ideas. The nature of ideas defies the process of labeling. Ideas exist on a continuum; they share common characteristics, they are in flux, giving birth to and merging with other ideas. If anything, it is the beliefs of a generation that come to define the label and not the other way around. We can’t capture the essence of the term “democracy,” we can only swell its definition with our own hopes, fears and dreams. The term “democracy” is, for each of us, attached to a different set of knowledge, experiences, and, most importantly, arrives with different emotional baggage. We are very aware of the label as a tool of learning and associate it with the first time we are introduced to an idea, a time when the idea is unexplored and the label that accompanies it is still neutral. The term invariably acquires its emotional baggage as we experience it in the real world, and yet we still want to think of it as containing universal truth, even more so now that it has become imbued with our personality and spirit. The longing to substantiate our most personal experiences, emotions and values does not hold up to the fact that the only universally shared experience of the label is the initial stage of unfamiliarity with it. The incessant labeling debates are the polar opposite of dry disputes over semantics, and they conceal two different but related discussions.

First, labels objectify the subjective. They mask personal feeling and emotion as universally valid fact and thereby transform a discourse on ideas into a conversation about identity. Without a doubt, a conversation about identity must be had. Nonetheless, by blurring the lines between the subjective and objective, we distort what identity is and emotionalize a discussion about ideas. This type of discourse undermines the individual and individuality while rendering consensus and collective action impossible.

Second, labeling is being used to replace an open, direct and transparent conversation about values, allowing a minority to hijack the central question facing any society while circumventing the democratic process. Labels like “post-colonial” and “neo-colonial” have become stand-ins for “good” and “bad”. They represent values while retaining an authority that they derive from the illusion of objectivity. “Good” and “bad” are so obviously subjective that they invite discussion. Moreover, they necessitate a democratic process for determining the right course of action. A label like “neo-colonial” has the power to stop discourse dead in its tracks in a way that “bad” never could because the label feigns objectivity. We must not be deterred by what we may perceive as a language of “experts” and, when in doubt, we must throw the most basic terms “right” and “wrong” back into the confusing collection of categories in order to return to this debate the complexity it is unrightfully being denied. 

What would be the consequence if we did manage to purge all unwanted and unpopular thought from academic institutions? Is what is taught now “right” and “good”? If people don’t choose what is “right,” but follow the right path because they know no other option, is this truly “good”? 

It is not good. Everyone makes a personal choice when they decide with which ideas to engage. When students come together to decide what ideas to allow and which ones to ban, they may believe that they are making a democratic choice together, as equals. When their decision, however, becomes institutional policy, they are effectively violating future students’ right to choose. 

Even more disturbing: Such a policy is irreversible. Knowledge that is not taught is lost. If we, as students, manage to limit what is taught at academic centers responsible for producing and preserving knowledge, we are effectively erasing a part of the human experience. The body of knowledge encapsulating human experience that is passed on from generation to generation is an essential element of what it means, what it is to be human, no matter the specifics of that experience or knowledge. To rub out the parts we do not like is a betrayal of humanity. Deciding what is taught also means deciding what is preserved, and what is preserved shapes what is perceived as true. When we restrict the curriculum, we are distorting the truth in ways that we cannot imagine nor hope to control. 

Some may still regard this as a small price to pay in exchange for cementing what is “good” and “right”, but this is not a victory for either. The forces of good truly triumph when we choose the right way, fully aware of why we chose it and not another. This is a strong choice, strong enough to resist the forces of hatred and evil. Its basis is an education that deserves to call itself an education. Education that is not indoctrination allows you to understand who you are and what you stand for. The only education worthy of calling itself education will force you to clash with all that you reject and it will embolden your defenses in the process. It will prepare you to reenter the pluralistic, heterogeneous society that seems to scare some students into wanting to simplify and cleanse it. 

Bans and silence imply a fear of certain ideas and ideologies. When a college implements policies that limit free speech, it is sending its students the message, “You are too weak to hear certain opinions.” Lurking beneath that message is another more grave and disturbing one: “We have not prepared you to counter these opinions and defend what you believe in.” In this way, the underlying message of bans and silence is synonymous with their effect. Silence is a sign that we have given up, that we have no reply, no heart to fight for what we feel is right. And if we adopt silence as a policy, we should indeed be ready to capitulate.

Not only does a “clean” education fail to arm students with defenses for what they may deem is right, it also stunts their development as individuals in that it causes a disconnect with their intrinsic morality.  A “clean” education is a tepid, emotionless one, a student educated in this manner will never experience in what ways the core of his being informs his opinions. He or she will not develop a moral compass, a set of personal convictions. Everything he or she knows is “right” and “good” and “clean”. Personal and individual morality is lost and replaced by a collective conviction that is not morality at all, because it fails to connect with the personal feeling of right and wrong that is inherent to all human beings. Individuality is lost. The most powerful defense against the forces of evil is to ensure circumstances that allow the individual to develop his or her ability to choose the good. 

The basic prerequisite for such circumstances is acceptance that no knowledge is out of bounds and that no expression of personal opinion should be censored.     

Bans and silence reflect fear of individuality, they produce homogeneity and open the door to hegemonic forces. They benefit those who aim to repress and indoctrinate. Far from creating “safe” spaces where marginalized students can develop as individuals, silence stunts their personal moral development. In addition, it fails to equip them with the means needed to defend their individuality against assault. If a “safe” education is not itself indoctrination, it certainly produces good targets. 

Polarization has eroded the public sphere. Anger over our inability to agree has led us to lose respect for freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom. The impulse is to shake off the rules, try something new. It may feel liberating until we realize what we’ve left behind.

In a polarized world, the camps are clear: it is us here against them over there. The feeling is that there are no more fresh recruits, no one from the other camp to talk to, to convince, to convert. The question then becomes one of how to strengthen “our” camp if not through growth in numbers. To some, it seems, the answer is making sure that everyone in “our” trench is ideologically aligned. Maybe what motivates learning and living by labels is not so much the desire to expunge undesired thought but the desperate need to develop a sense of belonging, an own label around which to unite.

A common language and identity provide solidarity when we lose faith in the democratic process. A deep cynicism has prompted us to abandon free speech as well as the principle of equal consideration of interests. It is strange that this cynicism would not prohibit the naïve notion that a group could rid itself of the only system that guarantees equal consideration of interests, the democratic process, without sacrificing freedom and equality. 

The vast majority of students, I am convinced, want to live in a pluralistic and diverse society even if, at times, the reality of it frightens them. If we wish to live in such a society, we must come to realize that the democratic process may well be the only common good we can all agree on. It is absolutely imperative that we work to improve and not dismantle it. 

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