who dares to question the mighty oz?I saw an exchange between academics on Friday that I can't get out of my head. Eric Foner was speaking at UCLA on the idea of freedom in America, pre- and post-Sept. 11. Foner is an extraordinarily gifted and important historian whose view of contemporary politics struck me as reflexive and predictable, but never mind that: the really remarkable discussion centered around a topic that was closer to home.
Another grad student in the room asked Foner about the state of academic freedom after Sept. 11, and Foner said that it was generally good; at his own university, Columbia, professors are well-protected against some occasionally virulent political attacks. Foner added that he speaks at high schools all over the country, however, and has heard from teachers in that environment that parents sometimes call school administrators to express concerns about what their children are being taught. Some of these parents, he added (in what should be understood as an ominous reference), are known to watch Fox News. Phone calls from parents, Foner fretted, may have a "chilling effect" in the classroom.
Later, another academic in the room (who I didn't recognize, but who I think was a professor) raised her hand to take issue with Foner. Academic freedom in the universities is threatened, she argued, as (for example) professors in many Middle Eastern Studies programs are coming under political attack in the post-Sept. 11 environment. Some people, she noted, are even creating websites to criticize professors who teach Middle Eastern Studies. General nodding and agreement around the room.
This baffles me, to put it kind of mildly. When people outside academia criticize academics, that criticism constitutes a diminution of freedom?
Fall silent, peasant! Do you attack freedom by speaking of me in a critical fashion? How fascist! Shut up! (My god, and you even have a website expressing your disagreement? An assault on free speech!)
Your silence equals our freedom, oh ye vast unwashed.
Academic freedom is necessary and important; professors should clearly have protection against formal institutional retaliation, including firing or suspension, for expressing unpopular (or dumb, or wrong, or downright evil) ideas. But somewhere, somehow, the idea of academic freedom has been bent into something altogether different; we somehow now have a right to not be criticized by outsiders. Parents who ask questions about what their own children are being taught are somehow waging an assault on freedom, creating a morally questionable "chilling effect."
I'm a teaching assistant in a 20th-century history class, and recently asked a roomful of new first-year college students what they knew about Populism. Blank faces all around the room. So I asked: how many of you have taken a history class before this one? They had all taken high school history. So what went wrong? One of my students explained:
"I took history last year, but my teacher mostly talked about, like, how Bush is a fascist and stuff."
If my (hypothetical) teenager came home and told me that his or her history teacher was talking about Bush all year long, I wouldn't have bothered with a phone call. I would have created a profound chilling effect in person. And I would not have been likely to regard it as an assault on academic freedom.
When did we become immune to questions and criticism? When did the classroom become our own little zero-accountability fiefdom? When did we become hothouse flowers, afraid of withering away if some tawdry little...little...little uneducated person dared to speak in our direction with something less than awe and praise?
Who do we think we are?