Monday, April 29, 2013

Moral Courage in Academia

Yesterday's New York Times has an excellent piece by Salman Rushdie, Whither Moral Courage? The political class is notably lacking in courage, Rushdie says, but even artists and writers get no respect for taking tough stands.

[W]e have become suspicious of those who take a stand against the abuses of power or dogma. It was not always so. The writers and intellectuals who opposed Communism, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov and the rest, were widely esteemed for their stand. … This new idea — that writers, scholars and artists who stand against orthodoxy or bigotry are to blame for upsetting people — is spreading fast, even to countries like India that once prided themselves on their freedoms.
Rushdie mentions the Pussy Riot group in Russia, which mocked the ties between Putin and the Church and whose members were punished severely for doing so. Public sentiment in Russia seems to be much more focused on the group's desecration of church property than on the power abuses that were the point of the protest.

One of the reasons that moral courage is lacking in the US is that it is lacking in universities. As institutions, they now operate much more like ordinary corporations, fearful of bad publicity, eager to stay on good terms with the government, and focused on their bottom lines, than as boiling cauldrons of unconventional ideas sorted out through a process of disputation, debate, and occasional dramatic gestures. Where the Yale of 1964 gave an honorary degree to Martin Luther King, Jr., who had to be bailed out of jail to receive it and was widely considered a common criminal, the Harvard of 2013 will honor … Oprah Winfrey. Where Erik Erikson resigned from the University of California in 1950 rather than sign a government-mandated loyalty oath, the Harvard of 2011 asked all its incoming students to sign a pledge to be kind. There are, on the other hand, ample instances of moral cowardice in universities -- two local examples being Harvard's unwillingness to acknowledge the malfeasance in Russia of economics star Andrei Shleifer and the affront to democratic principles by Harvard professors whom Muammar Gadaffi paid to promote his regime as a democracy.

Rushdie closes,
It’s a vexing time for those of us who believe in the right of artists, intellectuals and ordinary, affronted citizens to push boundaries and take risks and so, at times, to change the way we see the world. There’s nothing to be done but to go on restating the importance of this kind of courage, and to try to make sure that these oppressed individuals — Ai Weiwei, the members of Pussy Riot, Hamza Kashgari — are seen for what they are: men and women standing on the front line of liberty. How to do this? Sign the petitions against their treatment, join the protests. Speak up. Every little bit counts.
But of course people in universities can do a lot more. Especially those of us with tenure can speak up about hypocrisies and moral compromises. If we don't, we will have only ourselves to blame when those we are teaching grow up to favor self-interest over the public interest, and aid the existing power structure by stifling dissent.

For years I have been haunted by a matched pair of comments in the Crimson about the Shleifer affair at the time Shleifer resumed his teaching career.
“We think about him not as the guy who was involved in the AID lawsuit­—we think about him as the exciting, intellectually active colleague that we’ve always known,” [said another Harvard economics professor.] 
[An] economics concentrator who had Shleifer as a thesis adviser … rejected the relevance of Shleifer’s legal troubles to his standing as a Faculty member. 

“He is an excellent professor and does remarkable research and those to me are the two main criteria that you should be using in deciding whether or not he’s going to be a valued professor,” [the student] said. “The other stuff, that is for other people to worry about.” 
If the teachers don't teach, the students won't learn. If the tenured faculty in American universities don't worry about "the other stuff," who will?

1 comment:

  1. Considering all the censorship employed in educational institutions today, it's no wonder that moral courage has become a scarce resource.

    It is my hope that organizations like Freedom for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) will catalyze a movement promoting our cherished values of freedom in all spheres, especially education.

    As for the Pussy Riot group, they are not "oppressed" individuals of any kind. They are not very different from the "feminist" types who've been contaminating our colleges with their ideological rhetoric for years — that kind that screams sexism for their own incompetence while promoting prejudice against young men.