What passes for profundity on the left as it navigates its way through the Ward Churchill controversy is Voltaire’s fatuous line, “I am willing to fight to the death for your right to express your belief freely.” Shorn of its mindless piety, this position essentially means that people have a right to lie. Voltaire’s line should read, “I am willing to fight to the death for your right to tell lies.” It doesn’t sound as grand and compelling then. It sounds absurd.
Ward Churchill is a faker and liar beyond caricature. But modern academia’s notion of “academic freedom” is so hollow and useless that it extends even to him. Notice that the entire discussion about Churchill is framed in terms of “his rights,” as if universities exist primarily to provide platforms for jobless grifters to feed students lies. Forming students in truth — a very quaint notion at this point, I know — is supposed to be the organizing principle of a university. So shouldn’t ensuring that students aren’t taught by liars be the first, not the last, consideration here?
Shouldn’t the welfare of students determine the outcome of this controversy? To the extent that administrators even weigh this responsibility, they do so in the most shamelessly superficial manner. Struggling for a rationale to keep a barbarian on staff, they will say that exposure to odious ideas is a good learning experience, a rationale they never resort to when a reviled conservative’s work is at issue.
On Wednesday night, CNN’s Aaron Brown discussed the Ward Churchill controversy with guest Dahlia Lithwick of Slate.com. He asked a question of her that produced a perfect description of modern universities. Brown: “Just on the face of it academic freedom ought to embrace even dumb things, I suppose. Is that right?” Lithwick: “That’s sort of the cornerstone of the notion of what university is about, Aaron.”
This cornerstone isn’t exactly of an ancient coloring. It wasn’t laid at Oxford, Bologna or Cambridge — the scholars who started these schools would be surprised to learn that the promotion of irrationality is the university’s founding purpose. No, this cornerstone was laid more recently at, say, Berkeley, and on its wobbly footing professors have been giving impressionable minds the chance to experience stupidity ever since.
That embracing dumb ideas is the cornerstone on which universities are now built explains why those who exercise reason and demand the observance of rational standards are treated as the only real threats to academic freedom. It explains why tenured professorships are meted out not on the basis of intelligence but its absence — on a kind of promise not to use one’s mind should it conflict with reigning academic dogmas. Playing dumb is now an academic job requirement. Literally dumb: you must not say or see certain things.
In the face of a nihilist like Ward Churchill, self-respecting professors in the past would have said: either he goes or we go. Now before a barbarian like this, professors and craven university administrators are speechless. When they do finally manage a few words, the only phrase that dribbles out is “academic freedom,” a rhetorical reflex triggered by tremors in the spine.
As the Larry Summers flap illustrates, “academic freedom” means just its opposite: not liberating the mind by conforming it to reality, but imprisoning the mind in politically correct fictions that guarantee ignorance of reality. While Ward Churchill can tell lies about differences between America and the terrorists, Larry Summers is forbidden to tell truths about differences between men and women. The Soviet-style confession notes extracted by angry feminists from Summers are his pledge never to think freely about these matters again.
The purpose of “academic freedom” is the attainment of truth, apprehending what is. Yet universities that hire teachers who use ideology — which is just lying writ large — to obstruct students from pursuing the truth are always held up as bastions of academic freedom. They are its greatest enemies.
The more obviously true the thought, the more likely these universities will be to police it. Ward Churchill could get tenure by comparing his country’s leaders to Nazis and falsifying American history. But could he have received tenure if he had authored a book on Intelligent Design?
George Neumayr is executive editor of The American Spectator.
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