Thursday, March 24, 2005

Politics and the University

Columbia tends to live from controversy to controversy; it keeps things here interesting. But as much as it may seem like fun, it impresses on lowly college students the most trying national/global issues of our time: teaching assistants striking bring forth, to paraphrase Andrew Delbanco, the difficult intersection between a dying field (the humanities) and the incertainty of the job market--the battle between capitalism and academia; the question of racism railed Columbia a year ago; now we are facing a new controversy that has played itself out in newspaper articles, on tv, in editorials.

To those who may actually read this, and do not know what I speak of, I am referring to the controversy regarding "Academic Freedom" or the alleged curbing of the rights of students via intimidation and one sided presentation of topics. Columbia's President articulates this issue in a fantastic speech the other night; transcript can be found at this link .

The quesiton particular to Columbia is not Academic Freedom, but resides far closer to a discussion as contemporaneous as anything you could imagine: what is the role of academia vis-a-vis the Middle East. Embroiling the MEALAC department of Columbia into questioning its teaching has some pleasant and unpleasant aspects. It is good to know that people care enough from the outside to be guarantors of liberty. But whereas Students for Academic Freedom wear the hat of liberators, intuitively it feels like this is more of a facade than a reality.

What is the reality? What is the hope for harmony and peaceful coexistence? On both sides (Israeli and Arab) I feel an almost unambiguous no. It is the frightening position, the delicate construction that President Bollinger articulates, where you cannot win if you choose, and thus you relegate yourself to hanging from a cliff holding on as best you can before a nasty fall; there is no right thing to say without coming out as attacking a group, preferring a group to another.

Friends of mine come to me from schools far and away and ask me what is the deal with Columbia, why is it anti-semitic, why is it anti-zionist. It is a consuming case that not only challenges the integrity of my university, but that of all universities. What is the role of academia in politics? How do we escape from the political game of reciprical actions? Academia works as an ivory tower; a monastic place of inquisitive, quirky, bright minds trying to learn, trying to solve problems. Can it resolve itself to play in the dirty world of right and wrong? As ethics professors pronounce morality, the distinctly amoral aspect of the university is what has allowed it to prosper, I believe, as a champion of the whatever possible. The ever present legacy of the disputatio; knowing every side of an issue and arguing the death out of it is the basis of the University. Between universities and the free press, the great independence and objectivity of our country remains secure--until the evil head of politics enters into them, and then the hellish notion of 'I don't know' becomes all too pervasive. Because I don't know what our country would look like once we make academics too political. From the outset, it just seems scary. Perhaps I am wrong, but then again, at this moment all I feel is the notion of freedom slowly creeping away from the university, as its autonomy is it play in the court of political opinions.


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