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Academic Freedom

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Topics: Education, Pontificating
Academic Freedom May 20, 2014  |  By Doug Sikkema
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A few weeks ago a California primary school, in an attempt to teach how propaganda works, required its eighth grade students to investigate whether or not the holocaust actually happened. While the appropriateness of such an assignment is questionable for 13-year-olds (a point hardly questioned in all the brouhaha surrounding this story), the purpose of the assignment is, I'd maintain, quite good.

Here's some of what was stated in the assignment:

Some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.  You will read and discuss multiple, credible articles on the issue, and write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textural evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe this was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.

After discovering the horrific reality of the extermination camps, General Eisenhower knew that the insidious power of propaganda was so strong that even the 11 million deaths of the holocaust—a seemingly unforgettable pockmark in European history—could be whitewashed, distorted, and forgotten in a mere generation. He therefore ordered the creation of primary documents (photos, videos, and recordings) so future generations would "indisputably" know the holocaust happened, could remember it and, perhaps, stave off its return.

Of course, there were and are still deniers of the holocaust. This is really not surprising; we have people who deny the moon landing, the existence of Christ, the "official narrative" of 9/11, and the death of Elvis, despite a plethora of primary sources which suggest otherwise. We are doubting creatures. Because of this, however, we have all the more reason to rigorously analyze and re-analyze the source material upon which so much of our understanding is based. 

Having students engage with conflicting ideas, formulate opinions, and discern between reliable and unreliable sources are all good things, particularly if these are accompanied by a good pedagogue (literally: "leader of children") who not merely spectates as his pupils discover truths (or untruths), but guides them, questions their assumptions, and leads them into that "examined life" Socrates believed was the only one worth living.

But the way some critics reacted you'd almost think it was a fulfillment of one of John's prophecies ushering in the apocalypse. Here's one educational vigilante raising the alarm: "Holocaust denial is being explored in our nation's public school districts. Now we see how low the public school system has sunk ... to the depths of hell."

The response is extreme, sure, but hardly an outlier if you followed the story. After a media firestorm, vitriolic parental backlash, and at least one death threat, the school district decided it was better to cave to the furor than to critically engage Der Fuhrer. But as the school board scampered away with its tail between its legs, where were the voices—the measured, informed, thoughtful voices—defending the school's academic responsibility to not simply inform students, but to form them?

Really, I see this case as only one small symptom of a much larger disease in our culture. Prompted by a faulty understanding of education, we're losing the ability to engage with one another meaningfully, even—maybe especially—when we fundamentally disagree. In the last few months we've seen Brandeis University rescind its offer to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for fear that her controversial stance on radical Islam would not get us talking, but start riots. In a lower profile case, University of Ottawa's Dr. Janice Fiamengo was shouted at until her talk, which proposed to question the "givens" of radical feminism, could no longer proceed. Even Justin Trudeau's recent decree that all future Liberal MPs must be pro-abortion is just another way to "win" a debate simply by refusing to have it.

But what does our refusal to thoughtfully and charitably engage with those with whom we disagree say about us?

In a 2011 Comment piece, Ben Faber made the enticing suggestion that the true test of academic freedom (and, I'd add, intellectual maturity) is how we treat the ideas we might find strange: "[A]n academic's immediate response to a strange idea [...] is perhaps the best test of academic freedom. I believe that a truly free academic gives it welcome as a stranger."

This is really what should be at the core of a good education, but we seem to keep forgetting. Writing in the mid 20th century, American literary theorist Kenneth Burke was a consistent advocate for such a rigorous, rhetorical approach to learning. In his estimation, rhetoric was not merely the ability to use speech to persuade (if it were, then propaganda is fair game), but the ability to bring multiple perspectives to bear on an idea in order to enlarge our grasp on the truth collectively. As Burke repeatedly warns, such an approach does not mean we succumb to a vapid relativism; rather, it's a healthy acknowledgment that our grasp on the truth is always contingent, always limited, subjective, and shot through with incompletion. Engaging with others who come from completely different angles will sometimes nudge our understanding or cajole it, sometimes violently unsettle it, but in one way or another, rhetoric will keep it a living, growing, dynamic thing.

Yet it seems we fear this. Particularly if we think we have a grip on the "Capital-T Truth": why change? There are probably numerous answers to this, but one I'd suggest is that if we're so convinced we have the monopoly on Truth that we're unwilling to see something from another angle, then what hope do we have that we could ever persuade someone else to rethink their position?

The problem boils down to how we regard others. Burke believes that our engagement with others must be "based upon a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him, is not merely outside him as an observer but contains him within." Or in Faber's language: "A confessionally-grounded response to strangeness begins with recognizing the stranger as the double reflection in whom I see myself as the image of the Creator."

To clarify: of course I'm not arguing that the holocaust never happened. But I believe the holocaust is something as real as holocaust denial. Both are objects that can (and should) be held up to scrutiny, debated together, and understood in openness without fear. This should always be done with sensitivity to the material and the age of the students involved, but if we'll concede that education is merely the programming of the "right" information, then a teacher's real role is merely to download what we'll agree is the proper data, trash the "junk," and put a smiley face on the output that best regurgitates the input. Nobody questions, nobody gets hurt.

But if we'll concede to such a view, we'll have to concede to an ever-growing unthinking populace, one increasingly susceptible to tyranny and, ironically, propaganda.

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