ZELINSKY: The academy’s moral duty

Universities are the unique curators of knowledge and the incubators of new ideas. In these capacities, they have produced treatises and educated future generations to countless benefits that cannot be summed succinctly. The students and faculty of these schools, including Yale, enjoy certain privileges, such as unbridled free speech, because, it is argued, only in an academically free environment can tomorrow’s thought flourish.

Over time, university administrations, like the current one in Woodbridge Hall, have grown reluctant to assert any moral or factual affirmations. They see their role as the guardian of a marketplace out of which an intellectual, invisible hand chooses the academic victor.

Leaving aside the obvious irony — that many of the faculty who profess a love of laissez-faire academia deride the same principle applied to real world economics — this hands-off approach can lead to undesirable results. The upheaval of the sixties began in American schools, when clean-cut college kids turned radical and when their teachers refused to vigorously rebut them with intellectual truth. An era that ushered in some few goods birthed a lot more bads, sundering the country spiritually and politically.

Akin to the mass protests of the sixties, the current Occupy movements represent a threat to civility, order and progress, albeit in an infant form. Many of the occupiers demonstrate simply to demonstrate, reveling in a disruptive social outing. Others vilify “The Man” (the 1 percent), glorify “the collective” (the 99 percent) over the individual and are contemptuous of simple American basics like the right to own property.

Thankfully, unlike in the sixties, the occupiers have not yet seized college campuses as their spawning-grounds, hijacking the incubator of ideas and impregnating it with their extremism. However, given the biases of the typical university faculty and student bodies, the Occupy movement may yet root itself in Yale or our sister schools. And, when that moment comes, we must be prepared to cast it out with ruthlessness.

By no means should we suppress free expression and prevent a misguided American Studies professor from opining about the glory of the mass’ political participation. (Though we must ask: Why did the Tea Party not deserve such praise?). Nor should a student Occupy group be denied space to speak — like Sex Week, DKE and contrarian conservatives, their academic freedoms deserve protection.

But we should condemn their speech as silly, incorrect and incoherent. That “we” includes Woodbridge Hall and the economist sitting in its corner office (who surely abhors Occupy’s collectivism). Universities can champion moral and intellectual stances even as they allow others the freedom to disagree.

The same responsibility falls onto students, who should challenge their peers glorifying Occupy’s chic radicalism. Reveal the protests’ pseudo-Marxism for what it is: a childish and fashionable fad.

Occupy may not burst into an anarchistic monster (though international signs suggest the possibility). It could fizzle into nothingness. The lesson, though, remains the same. Universities have a duty to enshrine free expression, even for fools. We do not, however, need suffer it expressionless.

Nathaniel Zelinsky is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at nathaniel.zelinsky@yale.edu.

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