Tag Archives: censorship

Mitch’s VERY Bad Day

Let’s talk about censorship and academic freedom and Mitch Daniels‘ desire to use the power of government to protect unsuspecting students from “wrong” ideas being foisted on them by books with which he disagreed.

There is no principle more basic to the academy and to the American constitutional system than the principle that forbids such behavior.

The Founders did not minimize the danger of bad ideas; they believed, however, that empowering government to suppress “dangerous” or “offensive” ideas would be far more dangerous than the expression of those ideas—that once we hand over to the state the authority to decide which ideas have value, no ideas are safe.

As Justice Jackson so eloquently opined in Barnette v. West Virginia Board of Education, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion…”

In these United States, We the People get to decide for ourselves what books we read, what websites we visit, what videos we watch, what ideas we entertain, free of government interference. Your mother can censor you, and in certain situations your boss can censor you–but not your Governor.

Academic freedom is the application of that foundational principle to institutions of higher education.Free intellectual inquiry is an absolutely essential ingredient of genuine education (albeit not so central to job training, with which Mitch often seems to confuse it). Education  requires the freedom to examine any and all ideas, to determine which are good and which not so good. It also requires that we protect scholars who come to unpopular conclusions or hold unpopular views from reprisals (that protection is the purpose of tenure).

Some citizens will make poor choices of reading materials or ideologies. Some Professors will embrace perspectives that disturb or offend students and Governors. Despite hysterical rhetoric from the Right, the percentage of college professors who use their classrooms to propagandize is vanishingly small, but just as putting up with Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their clones is the price liberals pay for free speech, and putting up with the likes of me is the price conservatives pay, putting up with the occasional academic ideologue is a small price to pay for intellectual freedom.

The search for truth requires that we examine contending ideas, but it does not require the sort of artificial “balance” that ignores scholarly integrity in order to teach creationism in a science class, or that the holocaust never happened in a history class.  As a statement from the AAU put it some years back,

Self-appointed political critics of the academy have presented equal representation for conservative and progressive points of views as the key to quality. But the college classroom is not a talk show.  Rather, it is a dedicated context in which students and teachers seriously engage difficult and contested questions with the goal of reaching beyond differing viewpoints to a critical evaluation of the relative claims of different positions. Central to the educational aims and spirit of academic freedom, diversity of perspectives is a means to an end in higher education, not an end in itself. Including diversity is a step in the larger quest for new understanding and insight. But an overemphasis on diversity of perspectives as an end in itself threatens to distort the larger responsibilitiesof intellectual work in the academy.

So what are we to make of the disclosure that, while Governor, Mitch Daniels tried to use the power of that position to ensure that teachers and professors did not use a book of which he disapproved, and that he tried to cut funding for a professor who had criticized  his policies?

The emails display a breathtaking arrogance, ruthless partisanship, and an autocratic mindset. But most of all–and most troubling, given his current position–they display an absolute ignorance of, and disregard for, the essential purpose  and nature of the academy.

Howard Zinn was a reputable if controversial historian. Much of what he wrote was a valuable corrective to the histories of his era; some was oversimplified twaddle. But opinions about the value of his–or any–book are beside the point.  The question is “who decides what books are used in the classroom,” and the answer is not “the governor”. Government functionaries do not get to decide what scholarship is acceptable for classroom use or debate, and elected officials absolutely and emphatically do not get to retaliate against critics by cutting their funding or getting them fired.

I think I was most struck by the unintended irony of Daniels’ emails. He rants about indoctrination while trying to control what students read and see. (I guess it’s only propaganda when its done by someone with whom you disagree.) A Governor who talked endlessly about “limited government” and “freedom” when he was pushing his economic agenda evidently had a very different approach to the marketplace of ideas. (It’s sort of like those “family values” guys who frequent prostitutes and play footsie in airport restrooms.)

Bottom line: the politician as hypocrite and wanna-be autocrat are one thing.

Allowing someone who is so clearly contemptuous of the very purpose of education to lead a great university is an absolute travesty.

The Kids Are All Right

I routinely apologize to my graduate students for my generation, and the mess we’ve made of the world we’re leaving them. I tell them that it will be up to their generation to clean that mess up, and generally speaking, I find most of them up to the task. Unlike people who wring their hands and bemoan the state of “today’s youth”–a practice that began with Socrates’ Athens, if I’m not mistaken–I find the students who populate my classes to be, on balance, thoughtful, fair-minded, evidence-based and public-spirited. They give me hope that they really will improve our common institutions.

Of course, these are graduate students I’m talking about, and self-selected ones at that. So it was interesting to get an email from my sister, who created and runs the art program at Sycamore School here in Indianapolis, about one of her eighth graders.

In my eighth grade class, my students are to keep a notebook.  Each week, I hand out a quote or comment or question about art, and they must respond.  One week, the question was, “Is there any time when art, no matter how well done, should not be displayed?”

Today as I was grading the notebooks, I came across this answer, which I thought might interest you.  (I could show you notebooks that would blow your mind!)
“No, I think blasphemy and profanity are only ever taken down by less enlightened people.  Enlightenment comes from not having a perfect society.  By not allowing both the good and the bad of living, true intellect is unobtainable..”
John Stuart Mill would be proud of this kid. He has figured out what the nation’s founders knew, but so many of our would-be contemporary censors still can’t seem to grasp–the proper response to bad speech is more and better speech–not suppression. Only when all ideas are available for examination can we ever hope to distinguish between truth and falsity.