The president's in cahoots with some shady characters, see? He sets up some terrorists to let loose nerve gas but the scheme backfires and ... What? You've already heard this one? It was last season's plot for "24"? Darn.
OK, how about this: The U.S. government engineered the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It wanted to start a war in the Middle East ... Huh? You say that was an Internet-fueled fever dream after Sept. 11, a Big Lie seized by conspiracy theorists around the world?
Sorry. We know that fans of "24" expect a shred of believability in their fiction.
But Kevin Barrett, a part-time instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, isn't so demanding. He professes to believe that the U.S. government orchestrated Sept. 11. Which wouldn't be an issue, except he's slated to teach an introductory college class this fall on Islam. And that's got some Wisconsin politicians worked up. A bunch of them recently sent a letter to the university demanding that Barrett be fired. U.S. Rep. Mark Green (R-Wis.) released a statement saying: "Teaching students lies is not a Wisconsin value." (Is it in other states?) Some of the pols also have warned that the university could suffer if it ignores the views of taxpayers.
The university declined, of course. "We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," Provost Patrick Farrell wrote.
Ah, yes, academic freedom. What exactly is that? Former University of Illinois at Chicago Dean Stanley Fish argued in a provocative op-ed piece in The New York Times that it's not about protecting the content of a professor's speech. It's about the "freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis."
In Fish's view--and he's right about this--there's a bright line between studying something and proselytizing for it. Still, it does seem that cases like Barrett's give academic freedom a bad name. We're all for professors teaching theories, but isn't there some requirement here for teaching kids facts? Is everything a theory?
Barrett told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he would not inform his students that he believes the Sept. 11 theory, nor would he penalize them for disagreeing with it. Well, hallelujah.
We wish Barrett well. But we can't help but think he's selling himself short. The university is paying him about $8,000 for the fall semester. What a waste of talent. With his imagination, he could be making big money in Hollywood, writing scripts for "24."