When I spent this past summer in downtown Washington D.C., I naturally expected every conversation I participated in to carry political undertones, especially with the tensions in the presidential campaigns escalating and the anxiety over another terrorist attack on American soil growing. Every morning I walked to work I encountered human rights protesters, campaign posters, volunteer workers armed with clipboards, political surveyors and the like, all clamoring for my attention. I was constantly inundated with the rhetoric of the campaigns and interest groups; I thought to myself then that I couldn’t wait to get back to school so that every moment of my life wouldn’t have to be so crassly politicized.
I think I may have just been fooling myself. As most of us have come to realize, Yale is not the ideal setting for a vacation from the political reality of today. The fervor of this year’s presidential election is manifested profusely in the everyday lives of students on this campus, and everyone — students and professors alike — believes it necessary to make his or her voice heard on the issue. Last week’s cover article for the Yale Herald (“When professors bring politics to class,” 9/17) highlighted the concern of many students such as myself — that discussion of the upcoming election and political preferences has no place in the classroom, outside of a respectful, structured and balanced discourse within a pertinent course or subject area.
But as Dean Salovey told the Herald, there is no specific administrative policy regarding the academic propriety of politically charged lectures — other than Yale’s commitment to the individual professor’s freedom of expression in his classroom. Too many times at Yale, though, are the left-leaning political tendencies of professors exposed in this atmosphere of expressive freedom, sometimes almost unconsciously to them, via off-the-cuff remarks or subtle comments that can leave students in the minority opinion uncomfortable and, at times, intimidated.
To be fair, the Yale faculty does feature prominent conservatives who get political in the classroom — it’s just that they represent such a miniscule minority of professors, and not only at Yale, but also throughout the country as a whole. During this election cycle, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics reports that an overwhelming 72 percent of university employees’ $16.7 million in campaign contributions was given to the Democratic Party. The figure for our neighbor to the north, Harvard University, and most other Ivies, I assume, is a stupefying 97 percent.
This imbalance of political ideology has continued long enough in universities across the country that a national group, Students for Academic Freedom, was formed by those concerned to “end the political abuse of the university and to restore integrity to the academic mission as a disinterested pursuit of knowledge,” according to the group’s Web site. SAF has even gone so far as to publish an “Academic Bill of Rights” and urges students through school newspaper advertisements to contact the group if they feel their “academic freedom” has been compromised in the classroom.
This conception of academic freedom, taken from the General Report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors is philosophically substantiated by the SAF as such: “[because] human knowledge is a never-ending pursuit of the truth, there is no humanly accessible truth that is not in principle open to challenge — Therefore, academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity.” I sympathize with this balanced formulation, and hope that Yale University, in its interminable quest for diversity in its student body would be inclined to agree that the same standard of diversity should be striven for in the composition of its faculty.
This, of course, is not the first time that “Yale University” and “academic freedom” have been uttered in the same breath. William F. Buckley Jr., more than a half-century ago as a recently minted Yale graduate, composed a popular philippic, “God & Man at Yale,” which denounced the increasing liberal bias of the University.
“God & Man” is particularly interesting because Buckley himself acknowledges that complete academic freedom is neither attainable nor even desirable, and I agree. Austin W. Bramwell in his new introduction to the book points out, rightly, the fact that an anthropology professor would never have the freedom to teach the theory of Aryan racial superiority. So, Buckley’s question is — exactly how do we restrict academic freedom in such a way as to promote the truth in an unduly crowded marketplace of ideas? For example, if historical experience dictates that democracy is a better political system than authoritarianism or that capitalist markets function more efficiently than communist ones, shouldn’t that be taught rather than leaving those questions open to further useless debate? Clearly, this vision of academic freedom is decidedly more normative (and less “liberal” in the general sense of the word) than the modern SAF conception of a neutral exchange of ideas.
For me, reconciling these two conceptions of academic freedom at Yale today is more difficult that ever. On one hand, I understand that totally unbiased discussion of thoughts in the classroom can be beneficial, but on the other, I believe that Yale should be obligated to instill in its students values compatible with its founding spirit — those uniquely American and religious ideals. But with a more religiously, ethnically and geographically diverse student body, it is practically guaranteed that the values we each espouse will contrast and, at times, even conflict. It is thus the great work of each professor and the University to encourage us to explore our beliefs and evaluate them within a moral framework based on the aforementioned values, in the respectful company of our peers. I strongly believe that this is what the Yale academic experience should be about.
As Buckley writes in his preface, “For God, For Country, and For Yale — in that order.”
Austin Broussard is a junior in Morse College.