I may be hung out to dry for saying this, but would you believe university professors like Kevin Barrett, the University of Wisconsin instructor currently under fire for his belief the U.S. government orchestrated the 9-11 terrorist attacks, can give college students one of the best higher learning experiences money can buy?
You won't hear that from a lot of people, mostly because on the surface it seems like a horrible thing to say. That is, until you understand it through the mode of higher education.
Up front, let me state I've looked into this 9-11 conspiracy movement's claims, have seen some of the documentaries and evidence they present to support their theories. Frankly, I don't buy it. The questions are all provocative and valid; I personally just don't agree with the findings.
Hence, if I were a student in Barrett's class and the discussion came up, I would have to respectfully disagree. I would bring up evidence to support my claims, there might be some spirited conversations on both sides, but at the end of the day professor and student would be on amicable terms and I will have performed the kind of analytical exercise that is at the core of higher learning.
Now, here's how popular Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly, who also doesn't believe the conspiracy, addressed the discussion the other night:
He started by referring to Barrett as a slanderer against President Bush, which in all fairness is technically true since Barrett has implicated the commander-in-chief specifically in the supposed plot.
O'Reilly then claims UW has no standards and shames the chancellor, at the same time insinuating the university is wasting taxpayer dollars letting Barrett teach there. Next, he rolls a clip of himself shouting down one of Barrett's like-minded colleagues the night before, after which O'Reilly states the colleague deserves no civility and is one of the "America-haters hiding behinda free speech."
He continued by saying professors like Barrett don't deserve to work in respected universities, makes a reference to the "culture war" (the topic of O'Reilly's latest book), declares universities would not allow KKK members and Nazi sympathizers into the classroom but notes anyone willing to denounce America, Christians and Jews, and whites will be on the fast track to faculty membership.
It seems strange that O'Reilly characterized the situation this way and missed a critical point one has to factor in when talking about higher education. Here's why:
As a 1971 graduate of Marist College (a pretty nice-looking private college) and 1996 master's degree recipient in public policy from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, according to an alumni biography, I assume O'Reilly had to apply critical and analytical thinking in his studies to achieve such a respectable academic career.
So, why did O'Reilly assume Barrett is trying to indoctrinate students into his particular belief about the 9-11 attacks (which, by the way, is not the sole focus of the Islam class Barrett is teaching), rather than put up his opinion for a critical and analytical discussion? If a university classroom truly is a university classroom, then it is an environment of open discussion and not indoctrination.
Even the UW provost, in clearing Barrett this summer to teach the course, seems to have waylaid concerns students would be force-fed conspiracy theories. In a university press release the provost stated, "To the extent that his views are discussed, Mr. Barrett has assuredï¿½students will be free - and encouraged - to challenge his viewpoint."
O'Reilly's argument also fails to recognize that students who make it to the college level have usually exhibited some ability to exercise free and independent thought, a point the UW provost also points out in the same press release:
"Our students are not blank slates. They are capable of exercising good judgment, critical analysis and speaking their minds. Instructors do not hand over knowledge wrapped up in neat packages. Knowledge grows from challenging ideas in a setting that encourages dialogue and disagreement."
In other words, college is more than harder math problems and bigger words.
So, when I say professors like Barrett can give students one of the best higher learning experiences money can buy, I mean his obviously controversial beliefs will inevitably push students to look critically and analytically at the facts about 9-11, if for no other reason than to try to prove Barrett wrong. And having students - the future leaders of this country - think long and hard about the worst foreign terrorist attack on American soil to date is by no means wasted time, effort or taxpayer dollars.
It's becoming clear to me the terrorists are dangerously close to claiming at least one victory in this war - the squandering of academic freedom at American universities, the very place our nation's youth go to steep themselves in a democratic education system and come away with the knowledge to effect change in the world.
The perception that America cannot afford critical and analytical disagreement between its citizens while it is under attack is a dangerous one. And it is disheartening and disturbing to hear people like O'Reilly, who himself benefited from a critical and analytical thought-based education, now imply universities should suspend the practice in cases where an idea that's out of the mainstream is introduced.
Should America's leaders ever want a public that balks to ask questions, declines to disagree and forfeits their own thoughts to those in power, then they will have delivered us to our enemies, because we would be the type of people of which the terrorists could mostly easily take advantage.
Do you think 19 men were using critical and analytical thought the day they hijacked four passenger jets, flew them into buildings and killed more than 3,000 civilians? Or were their horrendous actions driven by the rhetoric of their superiors, ideologues who had these men convinced such an apocalyptic attack would guarantee them a place in infinite glory?
One man may decide it is true, but the very fact there were 19 men willing to remove themselves and thousands of innocent lives from this earth shows there was very little independent thought in taking the action.
Is that who we want to be? I can't imagine so, but the one thing that will keep us far away from ever becoming like them is maintaining our freedom and ability to voice critical, analytical and independent thought. Universities should nurture it.
Americans should never be asked, especially by other Americans, to put themselves in a position where they can be lied to and deceived without question.
Caleb Hale is the higher education reporter for The Southern Illinoisan. His column appears periodically in the Local section. He can be reached at (618) 351-5090 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.