Last week, I participated in a panel discussion exploring freedom of expression following a powerful play, The Hearing, produced by the Israeli Stage about issues of academic freedom in Israel. As illustrated by the energy President Donald Trump and many others devote to attacking “political correctness” in America’s elite universities, issues around academic freedom have resonance far beyond the academy. This is not new. Attacks on Berkeley were a centerpiece of Ronald Reagan’s first gubernatorial campaign.
Republicans’ decision to use tax reform to punish universities is an abuse of power. There are plenty of reasonable arguments in favor of taxation of ALL endowments, or non-profits more generally. To single out for taxation the investment income of large private universities while making no changes around any other source of non-profit income for the sake of raising only $250m is to use the tax system to punish adversaries. This, I believe, is a moral, if not a legal, offense.
As I have argued before, the term “political correctness” has become so associated with defences of prejudice that I believe it has lost whatever value it has had. I do think, however, that there are legitimate concerns about what is happening on campuses.
President Robert Zimmer of the University of Chicago with his “Chicago Principles” has in my view been an enormously important leader on these academic freedom issues. I wish he had more followers on other campuses.
These are three of the most important points.
First, there can be no absolute academic freedom for teachers. Math teachers do not have the right to teach that 7 plus 4 equals 12. I think Harvard would be well within its rights to insist that evolution, rather than creation theory, be taught in any course required of biology majors. Not all material can be covered and choices have to be made. Especially in courses that are required, there is no reason why those choices need be left entirely to the instructor.
Second, the one illegitimate ground for regulating what a teacher can teach is the comfort of his or her students. Whether the issue is the choice of novels in literature classes, the exclusion of rape law from criminal law classes, or the avoidance of contentious debates in social science classes, maximising students’ comfort is antithetical to the idea of a liberal education. Indeed, I would say that an education that does not induce several moments of shock and acute discomfort has been a failure. If students want to avoid challenge and discomfort they should live with their parents, not on a university campus.
Third, there has been a dangerous tendency in too many parts of academe to privilege the values of community and social justice over values of truth seeking. What should be going on in universities is debate, discussion, analysis, conversation, engagement with texts and much more, not with the main objective of fostering respect for all ideas, but with the primary goal of getting collectively to a better understanding of the world. There are ideas that are more right, and others that are less valid. When we sacrifice that concept at the altar of respect for every sensibility, we lose something of profound importance.
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