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Daniel Burston: Civility and Academic Freedom

American Universities in the Age of Trump

I’ve been teaching university-level courses – first as an adjunct, then as a full time academic – since January of 1987. In the past thirty years, I have learned that there are three core values that are vital to the welfare of universities; civility, inclusivity and academic freedom. If we were to discard even one these values completely, our universities could no longer flourish; indeed, they would crumble completely. Consider the Chinese Cultural Revolution, when academic freedom and civility were vigorously repudiated. The chaos that ensued in China’s universities did incalculable damage to Chinese society, and resulted in a considerable loss of life, as well as liberty. At the risk of stressing the obvious, we don’t want to go there. Ever.

Another thing I’ve learned during thirty-odd years of teaching is that these three values, although utterly indispensable, are often (necessarily) in conflict with one another. Why? Because every university is a community of communities. It consists of different constituencies, or stakeholders; students and faculty, administrators and staff, at a bare minimum. These “stakeholders” are often quite diverse, consisting of people whose age, gender, ethnicity, faith, and so on, vary widely. People whose priorities and perspectives are shaped by their age, background and occupational roles within the university are likely to rank order these values differently. For example, many faculty members place a premium on academic freedom. Many students, by contrast, value diversity and inclusivity over academic freedom. Others, because of their administrative or supportive roles in the university, might rate civility first, inclusivity second (or vice versa), and rank academic freedom last of all. So, even in the best of times, our personal priorities and core values are not always in harmony with those of other members of the wider university community, but must be continually scrutinized and re-negotiated among students, faculty and administrators.

That being so, we cannot discuss or define the bounds of acceptable speech and behavior – namely, civility – without reference to our other core values. The nature of the university does not permit us to do this.  Nor can we reflect on or anticipate challenges to civility on campus without addressing the issue of civility in society at large. After all, contrary to poular misconceptions, we do not inhabit some “ivory tower” that is remote or removed from the controversies of politics, economics, and race relations. No university is an island.

A second problem that bedevils discussions of civility and academic freedom is that the tension between our core values which normally obtains in periods of relative stability is profoundly intensified in times of crisis and political polarization, rendering the potential for the escalation of conflict within and among the different stakeholders in the university much higher. And as the 2016 election demonstrated, the United States has never been more polarized than it is at present.

Finally, a third problem that confronts those concerned with promoting and maintaining civility is the appalling behavior of our President. Witness his flagrant tendencies toward bullying, shaming and shifting blame or responsibility onto others, his thinly veiled (and sometimes blunt and direct) incitements to violence against his critics and opponents, his denigrating remarks about Muslims, Mexicans, women, his palpable contempt for handicapped people. These are all well documented. To say that Trump’s vulgar outbursts set a very low bar for civility could be the understatement of the century.

Meanwhile, many of Trump’s advisors and cabinet appointees – like Stephen Bannon, Congressman Pompeo, Dr. Sebastian Gorka and Attorney General Sessions – are right wing extremists whose views on race and religion are anathema to the majority of Americans.  Their appointments are experienced by many of us as a boost to bigots, and a figurative slap in the face to racial, religious and sexual minorities who, for the most part, did not vote for Trump. Finally, there is the distressing fact that hate crimes and the harassment of religious, racial and sexual minorities have escalated dramatically since his election, and he has done precious little to stop or reverse this trend, or to address the public’s concerns about conflicts of interest arising from his international business holdings.

Fortunately, despite the grotesque example set by President Trump, we are still able to talk about these issues publicly, and in so doing, give voice to our fears and misgivings. We may not be able to stop his bad behavior, but at least we can still kvetch. But with freedom of the press under threat, and fake news flourishing, how much longer it will be safe to utter such sentiments in public, even in our universities, where freedom of thought and of inquiry are supposed to prevail? I am not sure anyone really knows at this point.

And consider this. Though he dialed down his earlier pronouncements on this score since he was elected, Donald Trump has claimed repeatedly that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to gain leverage in their trade war with the United States. Since taking office, he has gutted the Environmental Protection Agency and to plans to intensify, rather than diminish, our collective reliance on fossil fuels, in complete defiance of the prevailing scientific consensus. And in a similar spirit, our Vice President, Mike Pence, tells the press that he prefers “creation science” to the theory of evolution because, after all, it is “only a theory.”

In fact, however, evolution is no longer “just a theory”, and hasn’t been for quite some time. The evidence on behalf of evolution is compelling, like the evidence for global warming. Now, don’t get me wrong. I have dear friends in Canada who still prefer “creation science” to the real thing, and who only recently acknowledged the reality of global warming – a development brought on by drastic changes in Ontario’s winters since they returned to Canada from a decade of missionary work overseas. After years of fruitless disagreement on the subject of evolution, we decided to tiptoe tactfully around this issue. Why? Because despite our differences, we love and respect one another. And in my private life, that arrangement works very well for me. I don’t share their beliefs, or their theological frame of reference, being Jewish. But admire the generosity, courage and resourcefulness they displayed as teachers and missionaries in Uganada, Cyprus and Macedonia.  And I share their attitude toward the European refugee crisis – a truly Christian attitude, that differentiates them from a growing number of Americans and Canadians who demonize immigrants and refugees, and want to build walls or enact legislation to keep them out at all costs, ostensibly in defense of a “Christian” civilization.

Knowing how their piety sustained my Canadian friends in dark times, I would never try to drive a wedge between them and their faith. And yet, in the public square, when it comes to matters of policy or an educational curriculum, I simply cannot maintain a tactful silence. Why? Because there is far too much at stake. To deny the reality of climate change or evolution in this day and age is to succumb to wishful thinking; to embrace an illusory world that is stubbornly contrary to reason and experience. (Slightly mad, in other words.) But if these ideas become more mainstream, as indeed they may under Trump, vigorous rebuttals of pseudo-scientific or anti-scientific modes of thought in the universities could give offense to larger and larger numbers of students, administrators and even other faculty, become increasingly risky. What then?

And now, please permit me a personal digression. My mother and father both nearly perished in World War II. My mother narrowly survived the Nazi’s carpet bombing of Manchester, otherwise known as blitzkrieg, while my father was badly wounded in the invasion of Holland. So, fighting fascism is in my blood, a familial trait and responsibility. That being so, I can’t help but point out that when Hitler seized power in 1933, Jews comprised just less than 1% of Germany’s general population. And most of these unfortunate souls perished because nobody – and I mean nobody – had their backs. And though Trump is not Hitler, and historical parallels are often clumsy and inexact, the fact remains that Muslims currently comprise 1% of the overall population in the United States. So, given my family history, am I going to let Trump and his cabinet malign our Muslim friends and colleagues, or set up a national registry for Muslims without a fight? No way. The stakes are too high. Because after a registry, well, what next?  Detention camps? And if so – where will that end?

Another area of potential conflict within the university that is fueled by developments outside of it concerns the astonishing popularity of “fake news. “Fake news” is not only counter-factual, but a form of propaganda designed to cripple the reader’s capacity to think critically, and to inflame his fears and flatter his (or her) pet prejudices. By contrast with “fake news” – which is now a booming industry, sponsored by our friends in the Kremlin – a Liberal Arts education is supposed to foster critical thinking and a compassionate heart. So, unless we want our universities to go the way of German universities under Hitler or Chinese universities under Mao, we have to insist on a healthy respect for factuality. This is not mere pedantry. Fidelity to fact is vital to freedom of the press and for academic freedom. If freedom of the press is under threat – whether from the threat of censorship, or fake news, or both –  academic freedom is, too.

Now, if you will permit me another digression – the book of Genesis informs us that every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. Do I take this statement literally? No, of course not. But neither do I take it lightly. I interpret it metaphorically, but I take it very seriously indeed. As I understand the Bible, the assertion that we are all descended from Adam and Eve provides the Judaeo-Christian imagination with a powerful metaphor for the fundamental unity whole human family; the idea that, when all is said and done, we all share the same human essence; a powerful argument for inclusiveness, and against racism. At the same time, we are told, God is singular, beyond compare, and since we were all made “in God’s image”, it follows that each and every human being is also unique, and worthy of every other person’s respect and concern. In short, we are all one and indivisible, but we are also all unique, incomparable and worthy of respect; a powerful argument for individual human rights.

Science has something to say about this, too. The study of mitochondrial DNA demonstrates beyond a shadow of reasonable doubt that we do indeed share a common ancestry, and that the whole human family sprang out of Africa. So, it doesn’t really matter whether you hail from North of the Arctic Circle or South of the Equator, or somewhere in between, or whether you speak Spanish, English, German or Greek. Despite the way that they’ve been depicted in European art for centuries, as being uniformly white, our distant progenitors were actually black. So, if science is any guide then, Adam and Eve were black too – if I may put it that way. They were also Jewish. (No, just kidding.)

My real point is this. One of the hallmarks of a good scientific education, and a good religious education, is the unwavering conviction that “The truth shall make you free.” Science and religion converge impressively on this point, even though they diverge greatly on how to define the truth, and the methods they use to arrive at it. If Trump’s first 100 days in office are any indication, however, Trump and his supporters will ruthlessly debase, distort or suppress them both, if or where science or religion conflict with his narrow political agenda and bizarre political ideology. Are we going to stand idly by as this process unfolds?

I sincerely hope not. Still, I fear that over the course of the next four years, we will all be sorely tested, and that university administrators will be subject to mounting pressure from both inside and outside our halls to silence political dissent and to hobble academic freedom, and to do all this in the name of civility. This means that faculty may be asked (or instructed) to practice a form of self-censorship to avoid offending powerful constituencies – be they students, wealthy benefactors or the corporations that fund our research. Some commentators insist that we’ve travelled too far down that road already. Meanwhile, the Dangerous Professors Watchlist, which received so much publicity in the press recently, and which targeted our friend and colleague George Yancy, among others, may be merely be a foreshadowing of what lies ahead. If so, it will take courage and determination on the part of faculty everywhere to preserve academic freedom in the age of Trump.


Copyright 2017 Daniel Burston. A version of this piece was delivered as a talk on April 19, 2017 at Duquesne University.

One comment on “Daniel Burston: Civility and Academic Freedom

  1. mpanchuk
    April 25, 2017

    Reblogged this on VIRTUAL BORSCHT .


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