Recently reprinted on these pages, a Notre Dame professor wrote a reasoned and well-crafted response to a controversial essay, in which a Harvard student wished to replace academic freedom with “academic justice,” or censorship silencing conservative views at odds with what she termed her “university community.” After discussing the recent history of academic freedom, chiefly since John Stuart Mill, the academic admitted that justice was indeed the better objective, but it was ill-defined by the Left, who seem given to the wrong commitments.
The debate is important, and the professor’s essay thoroughgoing and admirable. Yet the issue reaches far beyond academia, its antecedents are much older than Mill, and it raises questions on whether some Western Enlightenment, and even Renaissance, concepts of liberty are still worth preserving.
Michael Scot (1175-1232) was never the wizard and necromancer that peasants on the Scots Borders presumed him to be. He studied mathematics and linguistics first at Durham, then at Oxford, and last at Paris, just as universities began to be formed from informal gatherings of older and younger scholars. It was also the time of the Crusades, when the lost classics of Ancient Greece finally returned to Europe, along with the commentaries and more modern scholarship of the Arabs.
The university authorities banned these works, old and new. They feared that Christianity—which all academic disciplines then sought to further—would be corrupted by ancient pagan authors, for Saint Thomas Aquinas and others had not yet fully “baptised” them and established their validity, not to mention the works of Muslim heathens, with whose descendents Europe was at war. While recent historians tend to mock such decisions, it all made some sense, however imperfect, especially given what the deans saw as their priorities and that of their fledgling university.
Just as sensibly and imperfectly, the students paid them no mind, and eagerly passed the forbidden texts amongst themselves. Other Churchmen supported them. So inspired, Scot eventually became the tutor of Frederick II of Sicily (1194-1250), the Norman Holy Roman Emperor and the last of the Hohenstaufens. Frequently at war with the Vatican, usually encroaching on his lands, Frederick was repeatedly excommunicated. But dubbed by history as Stupor Mundi (or the Wonder of the World), he used the Arab parts of Sicily to further diplomacy and knowledge, sponsoring scholarly translation while, along the way, collecting rare African animals and assembling Europe’s biggest zoo. Scot went from there to Toledo, where he joined a vast team of Christians, Jews and Muslims translating the 500,000-volume library captured from the Moors a generation before. One wonders if the epoch-making overall interest, which led to the Renaissance in many ways, would have been so vigorous had not the university deans of Paris made such scholarship enticingly forbidden.
Similarly, Russell Kirk once told me of one of his student visits from St. Andrews University to Oxford, presumably while he was researching The Conservative Mind. The college at which he stayed locked its vast gates at ten, which was when the pubs shut in those days, depriving students of precious drinking time. Frequently they arrived home too late, had to scale the fences, and risked punishment were they caught. Dr. Kirk asked the college porter why they did not lock up fifteen minutes later, and the man replied that students needed a harmless rule to break, lest they broke more important ones instead. The psychology made sense to Kirk, who saw the need for order and yet perceived the attractions of youthful disobedience.
So, paradoxically, banning conservative views from campus—where they are often banned unofficially already—may strengthen student resistance to a ham-fisted Leftist orthodoxy. It may give our views a trendy currency which they seem to lack nowadays. But the issue goes deeper.
We may ask why universities seem so fascinated by modern politics at all; enforcing ideological fashion when the time could be better spent studying. Of course, mere politics may be all that most lecturers understand, or what lazy students demand—for, as Gissing remarked, politics is the province of the quarter-educated. The modern Cult of Relevance—ignoring that we must become relevant to our past, rather than selfishly insisting that the past be made meaningful to us—probably has some roots in lassitude and ignorance rather than in ideology alone. It does seem odd that so many Western university students spend years acquiring crippling debt, in order to learn what they could imbibe for free from media. Buying a paper diploma may have something to do with it.
The still larger question is whether any kind of unrestricted spoken or written liberty is not becoming obsolete.
The recently late founder of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, wrote and speaks often of building his mighty city-state from a welter of faiths and ethnicities—Hindu and Muslim, Christian and Confucian, Indian and Sri Lankan, Malayan and Chinese and Western. All had sensitivities that trouble-makers sought to inflame for political gain, and risked violence. So Singapore strictly controls incendiary statements of bigotry. It is a peaceful and orderly nation to which millions would eagerly immigrate.
Today, France’s vaunted “Liberty, Fraternity, Equality” has conversely ceased to exist. Equality is forgotten as millions, including North African Muslim émigrés but not exclusively, dwell in ghastly tenement ghettoes without a hope of employment, in a country where existing jobs are state-protected at the expense of job creation. Liberty now means that state-sponsored marches celebrate a magazine whose only income stems from the lowest blasphemy (against Christianity and Islam), while citizens are imprisoned for (insanely, granted) doubting the Holocaust—a rather restricted definition of Freedom of Speech. Fraternity is a casualty for both reasons.
One is tempted to blame immigration simplistically, but that could be a mistake. Both France and America were, recently, predominantly homogenous in religion and European ethnicity, and now they are not. The sensitive fault lines, still vicious, were once better known and fewer.The issue may be the volume of immigrants, their religio-cultural willingness to assimilate, and even socialist impediments to assimilation. But that does not explain the West’s new culture of taking offense, or the militancy of Progressives attempting to silence dissent even in relatively placid places such as Canada. Those matters are not driven by immigrants.
Haaretz, that valiant Israeli daily newspaper, reports that Britons like Israel only better than North Korea, and—whether it is fair or not—increasingly protest Israeli speakers on campus and even scientific and artistic exchanges, over the plight of the Palestinians. Insignificant numbers of Israelis (and even few Jews) and Palestinians live in Britain, so the answer lies elsewhere.
I submit that the world, enabled by media technology, is becoming Singapore; a rather claustrophobic little place, in times when geographic differences shrink, where sensitivities are heightened, while the rewards for incendiary statements grow ever larger. The question is whether Mr Lee’s remedy is needed, and the first step is asking whether order is truly under threat.
All countries, including America, have been through it before. My German-American ancestors had windows smashed during the Great War, although they had lived in Detroit since 1848 and their patriotism was beyond rational doubt. A few decades earlier, newspaper editors risked horse-whipping, or worse, for doubting the hysterical Yellow Peril supposedly brought by the “Heathen Chinee.” American history seems full of angry mobs and hick judges happy to scrap the Bill of Rights at a moment’s notice. So maybe this, too, shall pass.
Yet there is something different with the Progressive onslaught, in terms of its disrespect for learning and history, its ever-changing ideologies as means to personal power, and its broad and unholy reach. It would be quite unfortunate were its proponents to enforce academic“justice” throughout its own institutions, for the power of the state would soon shut down dissent in even the private institutions sheltering a conservative remnant.
This is not late-medieval Cairo, to which the Spanish Jew Maimonides retreated after being driven from his home in 1492, assured of safety to think and write under Egypt’s Muslim sultans. Today portends to resemble the persecution of Christians by pagan Romans, or the ideological vendettas of the Spanish Civil War—in terms of bitterness and relentlessness, if not violence.
The West should cleave to its liberties, however troubled, until order is clearly at risk, and spurn definitions of academic and community “justice”—especially since they would be defined by the enemies of true justice.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.