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Thursday, February 2, 2006

Academic freedom and procedural liberalism.

Two articles you should read:

"Shutting out a voice for Islam" by Diana Eck (Boston Globe 2.2.06, reg req'd): The director of Harvard's Pluralism Project and professor of comparative religion and Indian studies writes about a lawsuit brought by the American Academy of Religion against the Bush administration over its refusal (under the PATRIOT Act) to let a leading scholar of Islam back into the United States.

And "Recent attacks on academic freedom: What's going on?" by Michael Bérubé (Michael Bérubé Online 1.27.06): A speech by a Penn State University literature professor (and excellent blogger) about the coordinated and perverse political campaign to limit academic freedom in the name of "academic freedom."

I know Bérubé's lecture is 5,000 words long, but please don't comment on what you think he might be saying or should be saying until you've read what he actually says. Here's part of his conclusion, which highlights the threat posed by critics of independent scholarship:

For one of the things at stake here is the very ideal of independent intellectual inquiry, the kind of inquiry whose outcomes cannot be known in advance and cannot be measured in terms of efficiency or productivity. There is no mystery why some of our critics loathe liberal campuses: it is not simply that conservatives control all three branches of government and are striking out at the few areas of American cultural life they do not dominate. That much is true, but it fails to capture the truly radical nature of these attacks on academe: for these are attacks not simply on the substance of liberalism (in the form of specific fiscal or social policies stemming from the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society) but on procedural liberalism itself, on the idea that no one political faction should control every facet of a society.

There is a sense, then, in which traditional conservatives are procedural liberals, as are liberals themselves; but members of the radical right, and the radical left, are not. The radical right's contempt for procedural liberalism, with its checks, balances, and guarantees that minority reports will be incorporated into the body politic, can be seen in recent defenses of the theory that the President has the power to set aside certain laws and provisions of the Constitution at will, and in the religious right's increasingly venomous and hallucinatory attacks on a judicial branch most of whose members were in fact appointed by Republicans. . . . What animates the radical right, in other words, is not so much a specific liberal belief about stem-cell research here or gay civil unions there; on an abstract level, itís not about any specific liberal issues at all. Rather, it's about the very existence of areas of political and intellectual independence that do not answer directly and favorably to the state.

So, for example (and this is my final example, chosen especially for you librarians out there), when in April 2005 Alabama state representative Gerald Allen proposed a bill that would have prevented Alabama's public libraries from buying books by gay authors or involving gay characters, he wasn't actually acting as a conservative. Real "conservatives" don't do that. He was behaving like a member of the radical right. Indeed, his original intent was to strip libraries of all such works, from Shakespeare to Alice Walker; and as he put it, "I don't look at it as censorship. I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children." Thankfully, relatively few public officials see it as their job to protect the children of America from the heritage of Western culture.

But some do, and that's why academic freedom is so important. It may not be written into the Bill of Rights—you know, the real one, the one in the Constitution. It is far younger than the rights enumerated there, and more fragile. But together with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the freedom of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, academic freedom is an aspect of procedural liberalism that is one of the cornerstones of a free society. If you believe in the ideals of the open society and the intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment, you should believe in academic freedom—and you should believe that it is a freedom worth defending.

Amen.

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 2 February 2006 at 9:36 PM

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