The thought police are among us 1

October 6, 2006

Does academic freedom include the right to offend? Stephen Balch argues that liberalism blocks free expression on campus, while Frank Furedi insists that if we don't challenge ideas that offend us, we risk opening the door to extremists

Professors, in the US at least, are rarely punished for offending students. They are punished, as has been commonplace throughout the longer history of Western universities, for offending institutionally prescribed orthodoxy. What students do is turn them in.

The formal charge is usually that of being "offensive" or "insensitive" to a student. Official orthodoxy's regulation of speech has not yet become so brazen as to declare itself openly. The 20th-century ideal of the university as a temple of reason that enshrines the free contest of ideas still possesses sufficient strength to inhibit a candid naming of names.

Preferred are rationales that avoid taking on the old ideal too directly, such as those derived from consumerism's injunction that "the customer is always right", from the pop world's veneration of the young or from the therapeutic culture's plea that all sensibilities be affirmed. Cobbled together, these serve to make outraged students expedient enforcers of orthodoxy, but it is the orthodoxy, not the students, that drives the process.

Witness the US experience. What gets professors (and incautious students) into trouble? Almost never the mockery of religious belief, although ever so many Americans are devout. Almost never the impugning of capitalism, although the sons and daughters of executives are found in many classrooms.

Almost never the indictment of "white privilege" and "patriarchy", although white males are hardly rare on campus. What gets professors in trouble is the lack of proper piety towards the intellectual icons of the postmodern Left as disclosed by, say, a questioning of the normality or desirability of homosexuality, a defence of the traditional division of sexual labour, advancing genetically rooted explanations for behavioural traits or suggesting the superiority of Western civilisation in any important respect.

There have, of course, been exceptions, especially since 9/11, when hostile remarks about the military and statements in apparent (or real) support of terrorism have ignited blasts of off-campus ire. The case of Ward Churchill, who labelled the World Trade Centre victims "little Eichmanns" and who faces dismissal from his post at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is the best known. But Churchill's fall was not triggered by student complaints and came only after an investigation showed he had committed repeated acts of "serious research misconduct". If anything, his career is evidence of the strength of prevailing doctrine. In my opinion, Churchill's appointment to tenured full professor and ethnic studies departmental chairman rested entirely on his radical politics and supposed Native American ancestry.

A return to robust debate on campus will thus depend far more on the dismantling of institutionally entrenched orthodoxy than on rethinking what best becomes classroom tact. But, for the purposes of this debate, let us address the question in the spirit of that temple-of-reason ideal that still commands widespread lip service - if not deeply felt love - in academe. According to its precepts, the unique role of the university is to engage in an unfettered search for, and dissemination of, the truth, without concern for the interests, habits and established prejudices that search may confront. Like other noble ideals, this is a hard one to live by.

As close-knit human communities, universities require some outer bounds of sheltering consensus if reasoned debate is not to descend into verbal or physical brawling. In a truly liberal university, of course, this consensus should be a very broad one, capable of tolerating even occasional breaches of those bounds. But it is difficult to imagine the most latitudinarian of institutions not being shattered if, for instance, the mass of left-wing sectarians now so numerous on campus was matched by a similar mass of the radicalised Right. For intellectual pluralism and reasoned discourse to prevail, there must be a centre that can hold.

With this caveat, the temple-of-reason ideal provides our answer: whether in the classroom or in publication, university instructors should be free to propound their views on matters within their scholarly competence, no matter who may be offended by the content. There is a strong presumption here that intellectual quality controls are in place and that scholars are trained, hired and promoted in a manner that makes their views worth having - no small order this, as the present situation in many fields reveals. If eternal vigilance is warranted in academic freedom's defence, it must first be turned against the inward temptation to let standards slide.

And there is one more qualification. Provocative opinions are never an excuse for discourteous behaviour. Effective teaching, to say nothing of the rudimentary decencies as applicable in the classroom as anywhere else, demands that confrontations with students be intellectual, not personal. This may not always be an easy distinction, but it is the essence of academic professionalism and conveys the best lesson any university can teach.

Stephen H. Balch is president of the National Association of Scholars, an American organisation of university professors dedicated to the traditional ideals of liberal education ( ).

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