November 20, 2007

Scholars discuss academic freedom

“I’ve always thought the University of Chicago should have a campfire song that goes something like, ‘Anything you can do, I can do meta,’” said Richard Shweder, William Claude Reavis Distinguished Service Professor of Human Development, at a gathering of students and faculty last Thursday evening.

Lauren Berlant, George M. Pullman Professor in the department of English, and Wendy Doniger, Mircea Eliade Distinguished Service Professor of the History of Religions in the Divinity School, also spoke at the panel discussion on academic freedom, hosted by the American Civil Liberties Union of Chicago and Campus Progress.

The evening’s discussion considered the ethical implications of academic institutions’ positions on controversial issues on campus and in the classroom.

“You don’t want the University as a collective taking a stance and announcing the truth on anything,” Shweder said. “As you saw recently with Darfur, the University has stuck with its principles of neutrality…a mark of an institution that values the autonomy of its faculty and students.”

Berlant said, however, that the University’s decision to continue investing in Sudan implicitly demonstrates support for the genocide.

“Our abstract discussions don’t get at the fact that we [as a University] are a site of resources, and those resources are deployed to promote certain viewpoints,” she said.

That there are some controversial subjects with valid arguments from both sides is a reality Doniger encounters in her own research on Hindu scholarship.

“In the case of sati, the Hindu practice where a widow throws herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre, no matter what you say, it’s wrong,” she said.

She talked about the 19th century dilemma that faced British colonial officials in India, who eventually opted for a policy of noninterference in the subcontinent.

“Yet some people thought it was a real moral issue that women were being forced to kill themselves. So these issues have never been resolved, and there are good arguments on each side,” Doniger said. “There are issues of communal dignity here, and there are also issues of intellectual freedom.”

She added that the most scholars that peer into a culture from the outside can do is to learn everything possible about it and the motives behind its belief systems.

“If you don’t assume that the entire nation of Hindus are blood-thirsty, sexist pigs, that they’re human beings, then you can think through why they do this, and perhaps accept that cultures make mistakes,” she said.

Shweder, on the other hand, said that he sometimes believed that ignorance and “secrecy” of certain cultures and realities are the most pragmatic options in the real world.

“You’re sitting at the dinner table, and all of a sudden this image comes up on the television, and the whole point is to make you think that those people are barbarians,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with journalists going out there and spreading information, but most people are not going to attempt to investigate every last thing. So I think it’s better if some things remain unknown.”

Issues of intellectual freedom and exploration also resonated for the panelists in their lecture discussions with University students in the classroom.

“I feel as if I have to spend a lot of time in my discussions convincing students that not all the coolness points go to this position and not to that position,” Berlant said. “Am I going to be the only person in the room who feels ambivalent about X issue?” she asked.

The panelists also identified an institution’s administration as an additional hurdle in the quest for intellectual freedom.

“Consider some of the disappointment that’s around now. For example, at Columbia…their president [Lee Bollinger] has not defended its faculty for their views,” Shweder lamented.

“But the University of Chicago is lucky because we have the reputation of being unhappy and serious,” Berlant added. “So we have an alumni base that’s more likely to defend us if it felt like we were defending controversial knowledge, even if we’re not. The view is that if you’re studying it, you’re defending it.”