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Fishing for Academic Freedom

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Academic freedom is a buzzword that is getting quite a bit of airplay lately. University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill claimed that he was simply exercising this right when he labeled World Trade Center victims as “little Eichmanns.” The newest bad boy on the block is Kevin Barrett, co-founder of the Muslim-Jewish-Christian Alliance for 9/11 Truth, and part-time University of Wisconsin professor. Barrett believes that the WTC attacks on September 11 were perpetrated, at least in part, by the U.S government. “‘The 9/11 report will be universally reviled as a sham and a cover-up very soon,’ said Mr. Barrett, who has been a teacher’s assistant or lecturer on Islam, African literature and other subjects at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, since 1996. ‘The 9/11 commission has its conspiracy theory, and we have ours.’”[1]

While I certainly don’t want to question Barrett’s qualifications as a 9/11 investigator, (lecturing on Islam has certainly prepared him for this!?) I must ask why anyone is even listening. When private investigators began questioning the official story of the “bombing” of the Murrah building in Oklahoma City, nobody took them seriously. The press was satisfied with the right-wing culprits of McVeigh and Nichols, so it was case closed. Yet, somehow, despite the fact that all of America watched two airplanes plunge into the Trade Center buildings, this is not enough to keep liberal teacher’s assistants from getting airtime to voice their conspiracy theories; all in the name of “academic freedom.” But it gets even weirder.

A week earlier, Stanley Fish, decided to weigh in regarding the whole “academic freedom” issue. Seeking to walk the tightrope of diplomacy between the Barrett supporters and detractors, Fish makes the most astounding claim I have ever read about the whole fiasco. “Academic freedom,” he writes, “is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.” OK, I can grant this, to a degree. As long as taxpayer money isn’t frivolously wasted on meaningless research projects, I can accept this part of the definition as a given. But here’s where it gets downright kooky:

[T]his is where we come back to Mr. Barrett, who, in addition to being a college lecturer, is a member of a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization with the decidedly political agenda of persuading Americans that the Bush administration “not only permitted 9/11to happen but may even have orchestrated those events.” Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.[2]

Did you get that? Are you hearing what he is saying? Fish is making this a normative statement, this is not just an application to this particular situation. He is saying that academics of any sort, who hold a captive audience of impressionable students, should not be allowed to exert and exploit their influence to push a view that they themselves believe to be true. If we are to take him seriously, no teacher should ever be allowed to teach ANYTHING that he or she believes to be true because this would not be “academic study,” it would be “partisan advocacy.” Isn’t this exactly what critics like Thomas Sowell, Alan Charles Kors, Allan Bloom, David Horowitz and others have been saying and documenting for years?

If we follow Fish’s logic, only creationists should be allowed to teach the evolution classes, criminals should teach the law classes, and atheists the religion classes (oh, wait, they already do…score one for Fish). His article is nothing more than a reactionary tirade that only provides further evidence that we don’t have academics teaching in our universities, we have activists, of which Fish is one as well. He hopes that no one will notice as he waves his wand of virtual reality (I don’t really believe that he has a magical wand, so by his own logic I am allowed to teach that.) This may work on the college kids, Stanley, but it takes more than that for the rest of the real world. Now that an ecumenical, left-leaning professor is touting the conspiracy theory, the mantra becomes “academic freedom.” Where was Fish when the conservatives were the ones with the conspiracy theories? Apparently, even “academic freedom” has its limits…


[1] Gretchen Ruethling, “A Skeptic on 9/11 Prompts Questions on Academic Freedom,” NYTimes, August 1, 2006. Online here.
[2] Stanley Fish, “Conspiracy Theories 101,” NYTimes, July 23, 2006. Online here.

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