Academics Alarmed by Limits on Free Speech

In the wake of Sept. 11, the curtailment of free speech and other academic freedoms has increasingly alarmed the academic community, whether it involves speaking out against terrorism, criticizing the war in Iraq or merely approaching general issues from controversial angles. On Oct. 28, Marcus Harvey, associate secretary of the American Association of University Professors, spoke to an intimate audience about the state of academia in today’s cultural climate.
The lecture, entitled ‘Academic Freedom and Ground Zero: Where Civil Society Meets Power Politics,’ was sponsored by the University of California American Federation of Teachers and took place in the Engineering Lecture Hall. The lecture began with a famous quote by James Baldwin: ‘Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.’
The event focused on the ways freedom is being curtailed in the academic community and the toll this takes on public discourse. Harvey began by discussing the media and its failure to adequately inform the public.
‘Democracy depends on the capacity of the electorate to make informed decisions,’ Harvey said. ‘Our society has confused information with wisdom.’
The problem with the media, according to Harvey, is that the news alludes to a debate while merely replicating the binary structure of an argument, portraying it as a clash of two sides rather than an opportunity to shed light on a topic. Only higher education offers sincere attempts toward resolution.
Harvey sees this as the most crucial function that higher learning serves and sees the academy as the ideal place for resolution to occur. According to Harvey, academia is one of the ‘precious few real communities.’
‘A busy public … pays academia to do its thinking,’ Harvey said.
Harvey also said that scholars are prone to isolation and timidity. The withdrawal of intellectuals hinders active, public engagement with the issues of our time. He described the life of the professional scholar, with its five to 10 years of graduate school and atmosphere of isolated focus, as nonconductive to this wider engagement with the public.
For Harvey, the crucial role academia plays in contributing to public discourse is potentially compromised by any type of confinement. The nature of higher education is constantly being brought into question and attacks on academic freedom come in many forms. The question of whether the emphasis should be placed on education serving an economic rather than existential good, a practical as opposed to a philosophical imperative, fosters a disregard for intellectual inquiry by proponents of the market model of education.
Harvey said that as a result, the validity of sectors of academia such as various post-colonial studies have come under increasing scrutiny. The modern tendency to view the world solely in terms of binaries also contributes to the impossibility for alternative viewpoints to emerge.
Chelsea Nagata, a first-year biological sciences major, enjoyed what Harvey said.
‘For the most part, I feel free to express myself and my thoughts on issues and I think most of my professors encourage that kind of thinking,’ Nagata said. ‘I really wasn’t aware of and didn’t realize the suppression of academic freedom until I attended the lecture. I was aware that teachers weren’t allowed to mix religion into their lectures, and even to give their opinions on certain things, but I didn’t really know the extent.’