The virtue of academic freedom, that professors should be allowed to teach, study and express ideas without regard to their political acceptability, shouldn’t be particularly controversial. One would hope that there would be organic limits, based upon the intelligence of academics, so that profs wouldn’t teach their students that the earth is flat or two plus two equals eleven. But hey, freedom is freedom, right?
Not anymore. Even in the effort to comport with this week’s notion of political correctness, there is danger afoot.
Andrea Quenette, an assistant communications professor, was chased out of her own classroom—not because she was a bad teacher, but because her students said she wasn’t agreeing with them quickly enough.
If the movement to eradicate the word “master” from campuses, despite its having no connection to slavery whatsoever, but because the mere sounds of the word caused students to ball up in a corner and cry, then Quenette’s offense will make your head explode.
You would think that Quenette must have perpetrated an egregious act of harassment or obvious discrimination to provoke her students to publish an open letter demanding her immediate termination. The letter, written by five of Quenette’s students—some, but not all of them, black—alleges that Quenette violated the university’s policies prohibiting racial discrimination. Images of the professor disparaging minority students, or giving them lower grades, come to mind.
But Quenette did nothing of the sort. What she did was make the mistake of using the n-word—during a discussion in which she was admitting her own shortcomings about race. She didn’t use the word maliciously: She was, quite literally, checking her privilege. Isn’t that exactly what far-left students want from their classmates, administrators, and professors?
In case you’re struggling to follow, it’s as nuts as it first appears. In the course of discussing her own white privilege, she used a forbidden word, prompting outrage from her students who then sent out an open letter to demand she be fired.
The letter goes on to describe Quenette’s conduct as “morally abhorrent,” “dangerous,” and “racially violent.” The students demanded her immediate termination on grounds that her very presence was making the campus unsafe for persons of color.
The University of Kansas* has been “investigating” Quenette since November, and she remains on academic leave.
In contrast, Oberlin prof Joy Karega has enjoyed the benefits of academic freedom, protecting her right to promote her ideas.
Joy Karega, an assistant professor of “rhetoric and composition” at Oberlin College, claims the Jewish state secretly planned the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris and that its national intelligence agency, the Mossad, formed the terror group.
Karega has learned a great deal as a result of her suffering for her beliefs, and it’s become part of her “scholarship.”
According to the college’s web site, Karega focuses her research and instruction on “social justice and social change,” covering a breadth of topics with her students from journalism basics, grant writing, economic and social inequity, homosexuality and gender roles. She published a book that “draws upon archival research and oral history and historicizes the political literacy education of the Black Liberation Front International,” and is working on another book project, covering in part, the backlash of “bullying” she claims on her Facebook page to have received since The Tower first published its report on her.
It’s unclear what historicizing means, but it sounds very scholarly. As with the students at Kansas, there are calls for Karega’s termination due to her ideas.
“This is the worst kind of anti-Semitic rhetoric,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Shurat HaDin—Israel Law Center, an Israeli-based civil rights organization. “It is not acceptable for the dean to hide behind academic freedom and claim this is freedom of speech.
Well, sure, it’s pretty awful stuff, but that’s exactly what academic freedom is all about, that a professor, for better or worse, can think and believe outside the box. It’s not a matter of “hiding” behind academic freedom and free speech. This is the core of what freedom means. You are free to be as batshit crazy and wrong as you want to be.
That doesn’t mean it’s without problems. The first problem is pretty obvious. Karega’s academic freedom is protected at Oberlin, while Quenette’s academic freedom plus a
token metrocard will get her on the subway. Is it a matter of different schools, different deans, or is it a matter of the subject at issue? Did Quenette’s violation cross a line that not even academic freedom can cover?
The second problem, however, is trickier. That Karega’s ideas are reprehensible is, frankly, no big deal in itself. Academics think lots of stupid thoughts. And on rare occasion, their stupid thoughts turn out to be right, which is why we let them do so without storming the Ivory Tower with torches and pitchforks.
But it does raise the question of whether there needs to be a sanity test before one allows someone who appears to have little connection to reality teach children. While Karega is hardly the only person to believe that Israel is responsible for 9/11, the others are easily identified by their elaborate tin foil hats. Are you good with a professor who suffers from delusions being in the same room as your children, no less teaching them?
On the other hand, it could well be the wisdom imparted by professors like Karega that explains the reaction of students to Kansas’ Quenette, who was desperately trying to pander to the feelings of the unduly socially just when she stepped on a landmine. As hard as it may be to feel particularly sympathetic toward Quenette, given that she was burned at her own stake, fealty to academic freedom requires that she, like Karega, be protected for her speech and ideas.
But none of this answers the question of what to do about the questionable sanity of those charged with teaching students. Or the questionable sanity of students. Or is it just crazy to think that there should be anyone in higher education who realizes that they’re all nuts?
*This was originally written as Kansas University, but I’ve since been informed that it’s University of Kansas, despite it being referred to as “KU,” and the correct name is very important to students at Kansas State University because reasons.
H/T Hal Foster