The boundaries of academic freedom


March 21, 2007

The boundaries of academic freedom
By Alex Amend

Former University of Wisconsin lecturer Kevin Barrett's new book, "Truth Jihad: My Epic Struggle Against the 9/11 Big Lie," is due out this month. The work, a culmination of Barrett's now infamous class and his personal journey hitherto, is the most recent reminder of a higher education sore spot: academic freedom.

Barrett's introductory class on Islam involved a two-week study on the events of Sept. 11, including a look into conspiracy theories held by groups like the 9/11 Truth Movement, of which Barrett is a member.

The ensuing uproar in Wisconsin, from calls in the government for Barrett's resignation to an academic defense of diversity of ideas, raised a question: Does a line exist?

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents' definition states, "Academic freedom is the freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom, to explore all avenues of scholarship, research, and creative expression, and to speak or write as a public citizen without institutional discipline or restraint."

If a case like Barrett's were to occur at the University - an internal investigation found Barrett competent and unbiased - the result would be similar. The University of Wisconsin backed Barrett and made a point of not allowing political pressure to inhibit the movement of ideas, however unpopular.

Nevertheless, Barrett's case didn't settle the controversy.

A comprehensive 2004 report on academic freedom at the University of Minnesota outlined a number of threatened areas with varying levels of defenses.

Unfettered scientific research, most notably in regards to stem cell research, is particularly susceptible to pressures, including laws, bearing ethical and moral concerns.

The report also mentioned matters - like Barrett's case - of controversial topics that may be considered hazardous to national security.

The report referenced that the American Association of University Professors published all its major documents on academic freedom in the context of war in 1915, 1940 and 1975 and that the current war on terror fits the template for increased pressure.

Stanley Fish, a law professor at Florida University International and prominent writer on politics of the university, made two distinctions in the battle over academic freedom in a July 2006 New York Times opinion piece.

Fish posits that the true measure of academic freedom pertaining to a particular subject is only its availability to academic inspection and analysis, not the content per se.

If the study yields insight into academic and intellectual interest, whether the subject is black magic or intelligent design, it should be allowed.

"Academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis," he writes.

More importantly, Fish distinguishes between studying and proselytizing. When the area of study is no longer subject to serious analysis and only serves to encourage a certain viewpoint political, theological or otherwise, the freedom of inquiry enjoyed under the tenets of academic freedom is nullified.

Yes, and I can't believe that there aren't any college courses

besides Barrett's that aren't spending days or even weeks studying 9/11! (Each course could simply begin by showing "Loose Change" to set the learning process in motion.)

"Barrett's introductory class on Islam involved a two-week study on the events of Sept. 11, including a look into conspiracy theories held by groups like the 9/11 Truth Movement, of which Barrett is a member."

I agree, Columbo, but

I agree, Columbo, but current history (within the previous decade) is rarely taught. An entire course dedicated to 9/11 in all of its guises would be a fascinating start to a life of critical thinking and media analysis, weighing "bought" science against true scientific principles, domestic and international political realities, etc. (Oh, snap! We can't start kids down that road -- who will work the plantation?)

It cracks me up that Kevin's critics have consistently played horrified that "the children" will be harmed by exposure to alternative 9/11 issues. I spend a lot of time around college students, and I can tell you that anything which might interest them in important issues would be welcomed. They have been reared on celebrity gossip and silly left/right slugfests posing as news -- not to mention that most campuses are full of either Blackberry-wielding corporate careerists or beer-soaked hedonists. There are many exceptions, of course (look at the Temple kids!), but too many college students graduate immune to the life of the mind and the pleasures of autodidacticism.

I was in college in the early 80's. If I'd had a course focusing solely on the JFK assassination and its attendant deep politics, for example, I would have been enthralled, even without any prior interest in or prediliction for conspiracy issues. I was trained in my 30's as a Great Books discussion leader through the Unversity of Chicago. We start with one unanswered, Socratic question from the text that intrigues the leader, and discussion of the deepest meanings in the book flower open from there. (The idea is to explore it together and facilitate the discussion as opposed to positioning oneself as an authority filling empty vessels.) One could teach an entire course on 9/11 by opening with "Where's the plane in Shanksville?" or "How did anything hit the Pentagon?" or "Who is Osama bin Laden?" It would be the most popular course overnight. And you know what tickles me? Any regular on 911blogger could teach it.

I know of three college professors in CA

who use 9/11 Truth as part of their critical thinking courses.

I'm sure there are more out there, too.

I was hoping to get one of them to blog here about it as her experience in a central California community college is quite amazing and really inspiring.

I was studying international relations during the time of Iran/Contra and wrote about it extensively in the department journal.

I think that the debt-driven educational system and pervasive cultural obsession with material acquisition all but guarantees that students will choose to ignore intellectual inquisitiveness and only pursue "practical" career training. They only now seem to be slowly realizing that the dream they've been sold is not attainable for the vast majority of them. How they react to this realization will, to a great degree, determine the future course of American history.

This is why it is so important for the 9/11 Truth movement to penetrate this demographic and bring them fully on board.

The truth shall set us free. Love is the only way forward.

Creepy article

The author suggests that Barrett's teaching has an adverse effect on national security, and that it is not analysis but proselytizing.