Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Academic Freedom, Monty Python & Loretta.

Neither faculty or "Students do not shed their constitutional the schoolhouse gate." Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969).

Having read Professor Hayward’s now notorious October 2013 blog post[1], it is clear he takes delight in rattling cages. Nevertheless, some of the issues raised could serve as interesting jumping off points for discussion. For example, I have always objected to being lumped together with other Caucasians when it comes to ethnic identity. But assuming that he maintains an atmosphere of civility, it is difficult to understand how it is even imaginable that his comments rise to the level of “hate speech”. That said, I would love to listen to the debate that might ensue if students were asked to critically consider the Loretta sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian []. One wonders whether this video (or even showing this video in class) is a form of hate speech? 

But really, that is not the issue here, rather there are two issues: the defense of academic freedom and the importance of training our students to learn to defend their positions, and critique the positions of others, based on empirical evidence and rigorous and logical argument.

Why does this matter?  Primarily because as faculty we are called upon to present and analyze a wide range of potentially disconcerting (and perhaps even threatening) facts, phenomena, and their implications. A short list, off the top of my head, includes the evolutionary bases and outcomes of sexual selection and the various forms of social organization[2], the dynamics of immunity and the social outcomes arising from the refusal to vaccinate children (which could be seen as a form of child abuse), the origin of the universe and the elements of life, not to mention evolutionary mechanisms in general (which could offend a range of more literalist religious groups), the generation, costs and benefits of genetically modified organisms (including, in the future, humans), as well as the implications of social policy in the context of feeding the world’s population, the ramifications, positive, negative, economic and sociopolitical of climate change. Given the importance of social biology in species as deeply socialized as humans, one might even imagine a discussion of the origins of customs ranging from “honor” killings to the personal and political subjugation of women or the origins of slavery and its modern variants (which could be seen as “disrespecting” certain cultures.)  What will the position of the BFA be if faculty are publicly denounced by a group of devout students demanding retraction or the punishment of the faculty member?  

            It is in this context that Paul Chinowsky’s remarks (presumably made as chair of the BFA rather than as an individual faculty member) - assuming that they have been accurately reported (If any (other) faculty member said this, we would find ourselves in a deans office or possibly on suspension for writing this. ... The question is, are we going to allow this or condone this from someone in our own faculty?” ), seem, at least to me, to be overtly threatening, and certainly not dispassionately supportive of faculty who hold potentially unpopular or contrarian views. 

Is this an appropriate role or position for a BFA chair to take, given that this a chair rather than a CEO position. Am I to be marched to the Deans office (perhaps even by the BFA chair) or not allowed to teach until my views become consistent with the current orthodoxy, or rather the orthodoxy imposed by a vocal subgroup of the student body?  I suggest that these are extremely serious questions that strike at the heart of faculty freedom, and the viability of intelectual life on campus, and I am shocked that they have been addressed in such a cavalier manner — when speaking for the BFA (and the faculty at large) a more circumspect and supportive stance would seem appropriate.

[2] Pity for example the poor slime mold that becomes part of the stalk rather than a spore cell, and so sacrifices itself for the good of the community.  Of course we probably should also talk about the internal and external mechanisms involved in the suppression of social cheating, but that is another course.

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