International Studies Perspectives
Volume 8 Issue 4 Page 396-400, November 2007
To cite this article: Miriam Cooke (2007)
Academic Freedom: The "Danger" of Critical Thinking
International Studies Perspectives 8 (4), 396–400.
Academic Freedom: The "Danger" of Critical Thinking
Something is wrong when
campaigns are launched against academics and their right to freedom of thought
and expression. Something is at stake when a hew and
cry is raised about educators’ political persuasions. When we hear of this kind
of academic harassment in places like
Then, in 2003, we
Americans found ourselves at war (the War against Terror or the War for
One such zealot is David
Horowitz, an ex-liberal turned-neocon think tanker. In 2003, he founded
Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), that now has 150
chapters in the
Horowitz (2006) formally launched an
academic witch hunt with the publication of The Professors. America’s 101
most Dangerous Academics. The sensational dust jacket warns "coming to
a campus near you: terrorists, racists, and communists—you know them as The
Professors." These dangerous professors include ex-terrorists, murderers,
sexual deviants, anti-Semites, and Al-Qaeda supporters. At a time when the
U.S.A. government is in the business of tracking down terrorists and, yes,
ex-terrorists to prosecute its War on Terror, it is not a laughing matter to
stand accused in a book that promises to expose proponents of terror in the
classroom. Yet, far from finding a rogues’ gallery, the reader will encounter
the names of influential scholars like Noam Chomsky, Ali Mazrui, Paul Gilroy
and Allison Jaggar. Their "dangerous" profiles are collages of
comments made outside the class, sometimes reported to the
Apparently, this kind of unethical behavior is sometimes ok. In 2000 Horowitz published a pamphlet entitled "the art of political war: how Republicans can fight to win," where he argued that "there may be a need to make false statements and gain support unethically to win this political war" (quoted in Meranto 2006). How does this pamphlet fit with ABORs call for academic freedom? The key term is "political war."
As it is war time
different rules prevail, norms have to give and, for the duration, the
preservation of academic freedom sanctions lies, unethical behavior and
criminalization of critical thinking. FrontPage articles are a good example of
how this works. Filled with egregious misrepresentations of "liberal"
academics’ political and academic positions, FrontPage employees fabricate
facts and make dangerous allegations. These unreferenced articles then become
authoritative sources for their other writings, like Meir-Levi (2007) "The Nazi Roots of
Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad." Distributed before and after
screenings of the
In this time of war that
allows some people to lie and cheat, it is taboo for others to think
critically. Especially problematic is any critique of the Israeli state’s
treatment of the Palestinians or of its favored relationship with the
Joan Scott, chair of a
committee on academic freedom and tenure that AAUP appointed shortly after
9/11, is another professor surprised to find herself accused of anti-Semitism
for stating that there were "many more examples of attacks on critics of Israel
than on students who are pro-Israel" (Scott
2006). The passing of the Patriotic Act, she added, has had a chilling
effect on civil liberties in general, on the academy in particular and above
all on foreign scholars and students coming to the
Academics and especially
Middle East specialists with years of experience and research in the region
cannot criticize the problems they see in the Israeli leadership or in the
pro-occupation Israel Lobby or in
Think tanks like the
Academic freedom is not a right but a basic necessity. The disciplines have developed through the constant critique of their own norms without certainty about the outcome. The classroom is one place where this conflict should take place. Students should expect to be challenged and to be exposed to a wide variety of new ideas that do not conform to views, norms and values they bring ready-made from high school and home. The professor’s task is to examine with students how facts are shaped into persuasive, moralizing narratives by opinions, judgments, and standpoints. Hayden White has warned against the "impulse to moralize reality, that is, to identify it with the social system that is the source of any morality we can imagine…the demand for closure in the historical story is a demand for moral meaning, a demand that the sequence of real events be assessed as to their significance as elements of a moral drama" (White 1982). Students need to understand how individual judgments are not only made but also moralized through narrative closure. In other words, they need to know to ask what is left out of an argument, what added to make an idea palatable. They have to be able to distinguish plausible truth from propaganda.
Think tankers who call
for the imposition of their singular version of academic freedom are rejecting
critical thinking and the deconstruction of moral meaning making to create
uncontested space for their ideas. They are calling for an end to education. In
so doing, they recall the lackeys of tyrants in places like
If students are not
taught to think critically, they will be at the mercy of anyone with a
persuasive story. How, for example, can they decide between equally urgent
arguments about 9/11? Whereas some claim that the terrorists from the Al-Qaeda
network were solely responsible for the attacks, others counter that
incontrovertible evidence proves that the Bush administration not only let the
catastrophe happen it was actually involved (see the film Loose Change).
How can they make an informed decision about the validity of an argument such
as the one proffered by Daniel Pipes? In March 2005, he asserted that peace can
only come to the Middle East through "a total Israeli military victory
over the Palestinians…the Palestinians need to be defeated even more than
Critical and engaged pedagogy, the hallmark of academic freedom, can only be effective in a classroom that is safe: safe for the professors to provoke students and to push them to think differently; safe for the students to defend ideas they have not yet thought to question. Students need to learn how to address difficult issues thoughtfully. At a time when there is a growing belief that universities are preprofessional schools, we need to insist that they are in fact institutions for engaged scholarship and pedagogy.
Some argue that this is
not McCarthyism because threats to academic freedom do not seem to involve the
state. Others like Ellen Schrecker counter that the focus on the classroom is
"reaching into the core academic functions of the university, particularly
in Middle Eastern studies" (Younge 2006).
Neve Gordon, professor of politics at
I propose a curriculum committed to what I have called a multiple critique.6 It is difficult but also necessary to learn how to judge and critique problems in a number of different communities at the same time. This is vital in international studies: to criticize the Bush administration is not to be in co-hoots with Islamists (Buck-Morss 2003) or to love Saddam Hussein; to criticize Saddam Hussein does not mean condoning the U.S. invasion of Iraq; to be opposed to the bombing of the Afghan people does not mean giving "thumbs up to the Taliban" (Stillwell 2004); to warn against the dangers of the pro-occupation Israel lobby is not to be anti-Semitic or to support the oil lobby; to point to colonial legacies as in part responsible for domestic violence in post-independence countries is not to let abusive husbands and brothers off the hook. Multiple critique allows for a simultaneous condemnation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the pro-occupation Israel lobby and the oil lobby, the Talibans’ treatment of its people, Osama bin Laden and his murderous Al-Qaeda, violence against women wherever it happens and whoever the perpetrator, and also legacies of European colonial rule in the region. No single affirmation of guilt and responsibility should be singled out to constitute cultural betrayal. There are many necessary reasons behind outbursts of violence; none taken alone is sufficient. Students should be supple enough to understand this fact and then to make connections so that they may consider both the problems and the dangers in many institutions.
Academic freedom is not a soap box from which to declare oneself right and others wrong. Academic freedom is both a right and a responsibility. It is a right to deal with those who disagree with us without being reduced to silence; it is a responsibility not to silence those with whom we disagree and also to see and to teach others to see many sides to an issue so that they can make and safely articulate their own opinion about the complexity of the world in which we live.
1Horowitz complains "You can’t get hired if you’re a conservative in American universities." See Younge (2006).
2ABOR passed the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in July 2005 and a committee was formed to investigate how faculty are hired and promoted and students are treated and evaluated.
5Mearsheimer and Walt (2006) exposed the role
of the pro-occupation Israel Lobby in U.S. Middle East policy. They were
attacked for being anti-Semitic. Yet this 80-page article does not deal with
Jews, rather it criticizes the Israel Lobby that harms both the
6I define this concept in Cooke (2001).
Buck-Morss, Susan. (2003). Thinking Past Terror: Islamism and Critical Theory on the Left.
Cooke, Miriam. (2001). Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature.
Cooke, Miriam. (2004). Contesting Campus Watch:
Gordon, Neve. (2006). Academic Freedom After September 11. From History News Network. Available at http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/28818.html. (Accessed August 24, 2006).
Horowitz, David. (2006). The Professors.
: Regnery Publishing.
Mearsheimer, John J., and Stephen Walt. (2006). The
Meir-Levi, David. (2007). The Nazi Roots of Palestinian Nationalism and Islamic Jihad.
Meranto, Zia. (2006). Review of The Professors, by David Horowitz. New Political Science 28(3): 437–447.
Salaita, Dean J. (2006). Higher Education and the Dangerous Professor: Challenges for Anthropology. Anthropology Today 22(4).
Scott, Joan W. (2006).
Stillwell, Cinnamon. (2004). Duke Feminist Gives Thumbs Up to the Taliban. FrontPage Magazine, September 27.
White, Hayden. (1982). The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality. In On Narrative, edited by R. Mitchell.
Younge, Gary. (2006). Silence in Class: University Professors Denounced for Anti-Americanism; Schoolteachers Suspended for Their Politics; Students Encouraged to Report on Their Tutors. Are US Campuses in the Grip of a Witch-Hunt of Progressives, or is Academic Life Just too Liberal? The Guardian, April 4.