Because I have the greatest filial love for my alma mater, I write today as a sorrowful son and disappointed disciple. The Yale that cultivated my faith in the power of knowledge to move the world forward has resorted to censorship. I grieve.
As the News reports today, Yale decided this summer to omit cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad from a book about the fit of violence that swept the Muslim world in their wake four years ago. I can’t help but feel the dismay and embarrassment of a pupil watching his teacher sabotage the foundation of her credibility by betraying the spirit of her most important lesson.
That lesson, which singularly informs the work of a great university, is this: that free dialogue and the unfettered exchange of ideas fuels human progress. A great university is a place where these activities are protected and encouraged. But Yale forfeited this most basic role, pleading that it did not want to be responsible for tension that counterterrorism authorities speculate could still provoke protests and bloodshed.
I’ll leave it to others to vent about how this overzealously cautious decision disregards critical facts — notably that brutal government crackdowns, not cartoons, caused most of the 2005 bloodshed, and that many of the circumstances that originally escalated the hostility are not applicable in the current case. The decision alarms me because it indicates that Yale is forgetting what it is. A great university is not a U.N. peacekeeping force or the U.S. State Department. It is an institution wholly committed to the exploration and dissemination of knowledge for the benefit of society.
Brandeis professor Jytte Klausen gave Yale an opportunity to live up to this commitment by submitting her book about the cartoons’ aftermath for publication at the Yale University Press. Consider the narrative: To make a point about free speech, a Danish newspaper publishes cartoons that seem to many Muslims to denigrate Islam. Cities across the Muslim world erupt into protest. Their governments react badly, setting in motion a horrific cycle of violence that takes a toll of 200 lives. It’s clear even to the lay observer that the situation has much to teach us about the particular cocktail of social, political and religious challenges that face us today.
Presumably to facilitate thorough analysis and discussion of the topic, Klausen intended her volume to include a reproduction of the newspaper page on which the cartoons first appeared. But Yale pared her academic ambitions and the potential force of her work by omitting the reproduction. The University doesn’t seem to mind that the book’s readers will lack essential context, though I hardly need to point out that commentary is of limited use to a reader without access to its primary sources.
I understand that the prospect of lives lost gives this topic a grave tinge. I also know personally that those involved in the decision are the most capable of institutional leaders, and that being forced to make such a difficult and scrutinized call is an unfortunate peculiarity of managing an organization of Yale’s scope and eminence. But that does not save me from concluding that Yale’s censorship is dangerously shortsighted. If we are to have any hope of overcoming today’s challenges, we must have institutions that protect and encourage our important conversations despite the perennial evils of parochialism, radicalism and intolerance. In refusing to publish the cartoon, Yale is capitulating to these evils.
Yale’s potential for greatness extends beyond its immense resources. Impressive laboratories, libraries and museums can only provide scholars with means, and a trove of billions can only liberate them from the caprices of individual circumstance. While important, these are no replacement for intellectual fortitude — the type that allowed Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin ’49 to mobilize the campus during the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war; the type that commissioned the Woodward Report, one of the most forceful and unequivocal enunciations of the role of free expression in higher learning, in 1975.
I could borrow the eloquence of Coffin, or of the Woodward Report, or of countless luminaries and patriots for whom this topic is paramount, but doing so would belabor a point already made. A robust tradition of respect for academic freedom has made Yale’s campus one of the world’s most intellectually vibrant, but I fear that tradition is in jeopardy. Out of love, I feel moved to register a humble protest and remind my alma mater that her end purpose is not the favorable sentiment of the world’s extremists, but light and truth.
Tyler Hill is a 2009 graduate of Pierson College and a former news editor for the News.