Monday, March 14, 2005

Fallout Shelter

To Newsweek's Paul Tolme, University of Colorado outgoing President Elizabeth Hoffman's problems with Ward Churchill were all about preserving Free Speech in a nation grown increasingly intolerant.

... earlier this year, ethnic-studies professor Ward Churchill ignited a fierce debate over academic freedom because of a 2001 essay in which he called victims of the September 11 attacks "little Eichmanns." Hoffman and many members of the faculty defended Churchill's right to his opinions while outside of campus, and Colorado lawmakers called for his dismissal. ...

Hoffman seemed particularly concerned about the Churchill situation. ... "We are so deeply divided as a country." This division, she says, threatens the foundation of liberal higher education. "The modern research university is a big and complex place," she says, "but it ultimately is about the generation of new ideas and the transfer of those new ideas to students. ... What's tricky is sheltering new ideas without alienating the legislatures that control state budgets.

Two ideas are striving for primacy in Hoffman's construct. The first is her idea of the academy as a conservator of every specimen of mental life, the counterpart of a biological repository containing bacterial and viral samples; some virulent and some extremely beneficial. The second is the idea of the academy as a transmitter of ideas. In her words, "the modern research university is a big and complex place, but it ultimately is about the generation of new ideas and the transfer of those new ideas to students."

Logically, the chief problem inherent in this duality is less about 'sheltering new ideas' from a public reluctant to support them than about reconciling conservatory and scholarly functions with the pedagogical ones. Just as modern medicine trains physicians to distinguish between poisons and therapeutic drugs, the difference often being simply the size of the dose, the modern university must above all train its students to discerningly choose from the garden of concepts it so carefully cultivates, not simply engage in "the transfer of those new ideas to students" as if they were so many hotdogs in a cafeteria line.

Ironically, the public glare focused upon Ward Churchill's ideas in the aftermath of his "little Eichmanns" essay provided the scholarly scrutiny that the University of Coloardo itself neglected to supply. Did the US government actually specify a 'blood quantum' for Native Americans? Did US troops really distribute smallpox-impregnated blankets to tribes and with what precautions to themselves? Did Professor Churchill really provide the content of books on which his name appears or did he swipe it from some other scholar? Those are questions which have been dissected at length by persons "outside the campus" and even by "Colorado lawmakers". That they were not raised or even contemplated by academic departments at the University of Colorado constitutes a failure of its most basic mission. Universities not in the business of asking these these questions are arguably not institutions of higher learning at all. That neglect, not the discussion which her University went so far out of its way to avoid, "threatens the foundation of liberal higher education".