The doors are open for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but closed for Larry Summers
by Bruce S. Thornton
Many observers noted that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Columbia University took place at about the same time that the University of California at Davis canceled a speaking appearance by former Harvard president Lawrence Summers, citing his remarks in 2005 about the underrepresentation of women in the sciences. The two episodes were the latest in the ongoing battle over the issue of free speech on university campuses. Lost in most of the criticism and analysis, however, was any recognition of the difference between political free speech and academic free speech.
John Stuart Mill articulated the rationale for political free speech, with which most of us are familiar: even noxious ideas should be publicly aired so that they can be exposed and refuted. Moreover, ideas that in one era seem pernicious or absurd — abolishing slavery, or giving women the franchise — may wind up considered worthy and true in another. This process of refuting or acknowledging ideas requires a “town square” free from censorship or punishment, so that as many voices as possible — and as many ideas as possible — can be heard. Political free speech serves a practical end: to discover the best public policies through citizens’ raucous, sometimes woolly discussion in the town square. As Mill put it, “We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavoring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still.”
Academic free speech, on the other hand, has its own peculiar purposes and requirements. The purpose of academic freedom is to encourage the search for truth and the exposure of error, an endeavor conducted through what Matthew Arnold called “the free play of the mind on all subjects.” As such, it is less practical and more speculative than political speech, and more frequently at odds with the accepted views of society. Unlike political speech, its goal is not to persuade fellow citizens to action, but to get closer to truth. The great model of this sort of intellectual freedom is Socrates, whose pursuit of wisdom and virtue provoked his fellow Athenians into executing him.
At the same time, since academic intellectuals are supposed to be trained in the principles of sound thinking, one should expect higher standards for the ideas considered on campus than for those that contest in the town square. Not every idea is worth the university’s attention. Today, no one wants to give time to someone arguing for a geocentric cosmos, a flat earth, or space-alien construction of the pyramids. Nor should we grant a hearing to those endorsing more contemporary, but equally dubious, ideas that obviously violate the canons of rational thought and knowledge. Holocaust denial, for example, is not an acceptable idea on a university campus, since believing that the Holocaust didn’t take place violates the accepted standards used to establish historical truth. So, too, with the currently fashionable notion that the U.S. government destroyed the World Trade Center towers on September 11. Such ideas are today’s equivalents of the flat-earth point of view. The town square can tolerate their presence; the university should not.
What I have sketched, of course, is an ideal, one hardly found on our campuses any longer. The politicization of the university has transformed academic free speech into something more like the no-holds-barred, anything-goes political speech of the town square. Ideologues have discarded the university’s higher intellectual standards, deriding them as ivory-tower excuses for avoiding political engagement. This decline of academic free speech into activist politics and ideology has not even been consistent. The political prejudices of the professoriate — a continuum that starts at liberal and ends at radical leftist — have favored liberal and leftist speakers, thus narrowing the range of ideas offered to the campus community. Now an idea’s political correctness is the basis of evaluation, rather than its contribution to revealing truth and its fidelity to the university’s standards for serious thought. Just recently, over 100 Columbia faculty signed a document criticizing university president Lee Bollinger over the Ahmadinejad visit — not for inviting the Iranian president, but for Bollinger’s harsh introductory comments, which they deemed an appeasement of conservative critics and, in the words of one professor, the “language of warfare.”
Columbia, then, was terribly mistaken in inviting Ahmadinejad onto campus, for what serious ideas did he present? That the Holocaust never happened, that a cabal of Jews runs the West, and that homosexuals don’t exist in Iran? His appearance was a stunt, not an incitement to serious discussion, let alone an inducement to intellectual discovery. Conversely, UC Davis’s rescinding its invitation to Larry Summers was a violation of academic free speech. Summers is a respected scholar who has been demonized merely for speculating on the causes of an undisputed fact — that fewer women than men work in science, mathematics, and engineering. Some serious research provides support for one of the several potential explanations that he offered — an innate difference in women’s capacity for intellectual pursuit in those disciplines. The uproar that followed Summers’s remarks, and that eventually led to his departure from Harvard, reflected not the evident falsity of his hypothesis, but rather the political prejudices of some professors.
Once again, we see how far the university has strayed from its true mission — the difficult search for truth — and embraced instead the advocacy of political ideology.
©2007 Bruce S. Thornton