Professor Rashid Khalidi's recent comments to the Columbia faculty give much food for thought.
Why are academic freedom and freedom of speech necessary? They're not necessary to defend conventional popular ideas. You don't need freedom of speech to defend ideas that everybody agrees with. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are particularly necessary for unpopular and difficult ideas, for unconventional ideas, for ideas that challenge reigning orthodoxy. Academic freedom is important, secondly, because it's necessary to push the frontiers of knowledge forward. That in turn requires protection. That in turn requires support. Pushing the boundaries, pushing at what is accepted, requires the kind of support that academic freedom gives us.
This unremarkable sounding paragraph makes two assumptions, that implicitly universities are primarily by and for "unpopular thought," that is, in opposition to the hated and again implicitly wrong and oppressive orthodoxies, and moreover, that the frontiers of unorthodoxy constitute the frontiers of knowledge.
Far be it from me to defend what is conventional and popular, or what is agreed upon, but the elevation of unpopularity as the highest virtue seems a bit forced. This might be called the Square Pegs Axiom. And with all due respect to Galileo, as a theory on the advancement of knowledge, the unconventional doesn't really seem to have contributed more than dull and conventional insides and incremental change. The notion of the dangerous outsider as the prime mover, Thomas Kuhn in a leather jacket, is appealing but lacks any serious foundation in the history of ideas.
This is not to say that ideas that go against the grain may not be correct. Take Elie Kedourie's challenge to the Chatham House version for example, demolishing the convenient consensus about Britain's role in creating what is now called the post-colonial Middle East. But on second thought, this may not be the kind of unconventional idea that Khalidi has in mind.
Next, Khalidi says a prayer for the hard working people:
A third reason that academic freedom is necessary is because it serves to protect precisely the most vulnerable people in academia: junior faculty, people who do not have the protection of tenure. Now, I should say, as someone who happens to have tenure, that unfortunately, this is not a protection that all of those who have it use as often as they should. Tenure should be something that we value, we appreciate, should be something that spurs us to do more, should be something that spurs us to push the boundaries. But for those who don't have it, academic freedom is absolutely vital, as we heard from the last speaker. It's not a coincidence that our junior colleagues have been the ones targeted in this filthy campaign by the gutter press and by its allies out in the world.
This kind of stuff may play well when addressed to 400 Columbia faculty members and the self-selecting groups of grad students and other toadies who show up for pretentiously titled ‘teach-in's.' But in the real world, the most vulnerable people in academia are students. Remember them? Students are protected not by a misty concept of academic freedom, where truth loving professors climb every mountain and ford every sea, but by academic responsibility. This is when professors show up for class, give their lectures, grade the students' papers, and don't act all prima donna-ish and overbearing, especially about their own politics.
To review: the students are the clients paying through the nose for a service, and service providers should be coming through with the goods.
Because of its value, in all of these spheres, it's absolutely vital to defend academic freedom. This is something that's valuable to all of us. It's valuable to students, it's valuable to the faculty, it's valuable to society as a whole. If students were coming to be told ideas that they arrived at university with, they would be getting nothing of value here. If they were not to be challenged, if they were not to be forced to rethink the things that they come here as 18-year-olds or 22-year-olds or 25-year-olds with, what in heaven's name would be the point of the university? What would in heaven's name would be the point of teaching? We would just come here with monolithic conventional ideas, and we would leave here with the same monolithic conventional ideas. This is why academic freedom is absolutely vital. It's not just vital to us, the academics. It's vital to everybody in this society and it is something which has to be defended not just by academics, but also by students. It's too valuable to be left to politicians, and heaven knows, it's too valuable to be left to administrators.
Conventional thinking, bad. Consensus thinking, bad. Administrators and politicians, bad. Professors, good. I guess.
But wait. Here comes the final act.
Now, what is the current environment in which the so-called crisis at Columbia has developed? And I agree fully with one of the previous speakers, this is an utterly artificial crisis created from without the university for purposes that are, in fact, much larger than the university. The first element of this larger environment is a campaign that is nationwide in scope, against the autonomy of the universities in the broadest sense. It's a campaign taking place in state legislatures. It's a campaign taking place in the columns of newspapers. It's a campaign which argues that there must be balance in universities. It's a campaign that based on an utterly spurious argument that the universities are strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that they were strongholds of radical and liberal ideas. Would that the medical schools and the pharmaceutical schools were challenging the stranglehold of industrial medicine, of the industrial pharmaceutical industry. Would that agriculture schools -- would that agriculture schools or business schools were challenging the reigning orthodoxies. Would that economics departments, would that engineering schools, would that schools of international affairs were vigorously challenging the reigning orthodoxies in their fields. Would -- I could go on and on and on. We should challenge these ludicrous assertions, which are permeating not just the columns of the right wing press, but which we find before important state legislatures today.
How can we respond to such a sweeping indictment? Can we take it seriously? Are we supposed to rise up against Pzifer? General Electric? And which engineering orthodoxies exactly does he wish to overthrow? Maybe we should just buy an organic peach.
I am reminded of a statement made at another college gathering many years ago:
But you can't hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn't we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn't this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we're not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!
We don't deserve them, these paragons of the unconventional.
And when I search a faceless crowd
A swirling mass of gray and black and white
They don't look real to me
In fact, they look so strange