Academic Freedom is important

More and more, Academic Freedom is being used to describe the right of individuals to hold their own political views and not be punished for it. Maybe I'm confused, but I thought that that was called "Democracy" and it was a political system, not a house of study.

The difference between a house of higher studies and a political system is that the latter is intended for a healthy political debate to determine the future course of a society, while the former is intended to provide young minds with the facts and skills they need to become an active part of that society and contribute to that political debate. It is also a place where intellectual humility tells us that we can never be sure that our own beliefs are the absolute truth. A place where we need to learn to question ourselves.

So what happens when a professor believes that in the name of Academic Freedom it is his/her right to present his/her students only with his/her version of an issue? In other days, that was called "indoctrination". Vladimir Illich Ulianov (Lenin) once said that all Education is indoctrination and that the Educational system is a tool that the State uses to perpetuate itself; therefore it was admissible to indoctrinate children in communism because the Soviet State was doing the same that Western states were doing...

But the Soviet Union is gone. Even if we accept Lenin's description of Education (I do not), there is still one other fact to consider: any theory needs to be tested against reality. When reality is an objective reality, external to the individual and the process, it remains something to be interpreted and explained. When reality begins to be adjusted so it fits the theory, we begin to fall into Wonderland, where everything that is can changed by sheer strenght of will, and unpleasant facts can be brushed away by clicking our shoes to go back to Kansas. The Soviets did it by claiming achievements that did not exist and living in a fantasy world that eventually collapsed unto itself.

Something similar is happening in today's academic world. First of all, professors do feel that they have the right of denying their students an honest look at alternative theories. How many of us have heard comments from students about how this or that professor told a student that "if you want to hear about THAT theory, you should take another course...I do not teach it!"

It was therefore natural that the Academic world become an ideological battleground for the minds and souls of the future generation. Students in many Universities are carefully educated on what is appropriate and what is inappropriate to believe, and that if the facts don't fit your beliefs, it's because the facts are wrong...Nowhere is this battle more evident than in the Social Sciences. As a sociologist myself, I'm very aware of the temptation to fit the facts to a theory instead of the other way around...and with statistics to support it!

Unfortunately one of the main victims of this "teaching" environment is the truth. When we try to impose our own interpretation of reality on others by sheer strenght of intellect, we cannot afford to be caught with our pants down, so if the facts contradict our worldview, it is because somebody else changed the facts to undermine the truth we are teaching. It is the perfect intellectual trap. When we believe that we actually posses the ultimate truth, nothing so petty as facts can ever stop us!

From all the issues that are discussed today in Academia, probably none arouses more passions on both sides than the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, and therefore none has been a worst victim of "Academic unilateralism". Some of the early victims were the stories of Jewish refugees from Arabs lands, the memory of the Farhoud, the documented facts of the Holocaust, and the unholly alliance of the Arab intellectual elite first with Adolf Hitler's Nazi ideology and later with Soviet Communism. The image that prevails today in the Academic world is that of an Arab world maligned by the imperialistic West that abused their innocence and trust; and Israel is the embodiment of that cruel western civilization.

Then there are the students. These young adults are still at a time in their lives when being accepted is an important factor in defining what they do or what they believe. If a certain belief makes them unpopular, they will dump that belief. They will adjust their behavior to make sure they pass the class and that they are liked by their peers, because they believe that is the key to future success.

You see, I hold an unpopular belief...that the University is a place to provide the students with the tools for critical thinking; a place to encourage independent research of facts and the ability to evaluate the validity of sources. I believe that the University is a place for intellectual debate based on facts, not ideologies. I believe that the place for the ideological debate is in the political process and that students need to be respected enough to be allowed to make their own minds, not punished when their beliefs are different from those of their professors. I call what is hapenning today in many Universities intellectual dictatorship and indoctrination; I see it as the absolute polar opposite of Academic Freeedom; as a way to ensure that the student will not challenge their teachers or their teachers' beliefs. It is, in short, the graveyard of progress and intellectual creativity, with the facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conficts being just one more victim of educational mediocrity.


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