Debate, not silence, is antidote to error

August 02, 2006|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- Huey Long, the fabled Louisiana populist governor and senator, had no special reverence for intellectuals and generally did his best to sound like an unlettered hayseed. But during his time in power, he poured money into Louisiana State University.

His inspiration came from 18th-century Prussian ruler Frederick the Great, whom Mr. Long was fond of quoting: "My soldiers will take Vienna, and my professors at Heidelberg will explain the reasons why." For anyone who might question his policies, Huey said, "I've got a university down in Louisiana that cost me $15 million that can tell you why I do like I do."

Scholars in Baton Rouge, like professors elsewhere, were free to pursue their research wherever it led. But as biographer T. Harry Williams noted, there was one restriction - "they could not publicly criticize Huey Long. Academic freedom did not include the privilege of denouncing the man responsible for the splendor that was LSU."

Since then, our leaders have largely overcome the notion that state universities exist to glorify their benefactors. But government support of higher education still creates a tension between what politicians and the public expect and what universities produce. Even at private colleges, alumni, donors and other interested parties are inclined to question the value of academic freedom when it leads to lunacy.

The tension erupted into open hostilities recently at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which discovered that one of its instructors has an unorthodox view of recent history. Kevin Barrett, who teaches a course on Islam, thinks the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were "an inside job" masterminded by the Bush administration to justify U.S. aggression in the Middle East.

If you advocate this theory on the street corner or the Internet, you can count on being ignored. But if you propound it on a college campus, you will not lack for attention. When Mr. Barrett went on a radio show and said he had addressed the subject in class, he raised up a mass movement of Wisconsinites who thought he shouldn't be allowed to mop the floors at the state's flagship public university, much less contaminate the promising minds of its students.

The revelation confirmed the widespread view of Madison, and its famously liberal university, as "76 square miles surrounded by reality." More than two dozen state legislators signed a petition denouncing Mr. Barrett. The speaker of the House warned that the school could face punishment in the form of funding cuts if it kept him on.

Said U.S. Rep. Mark Green, a Republican who is running for governor, "Not a dime of either taxpayer or tuition dollars should be going to Kevin Barrett so he can tell students that Sept. 11 was a creation of the government, and that the most murdering terrorist organization in the world is a myth created by the CIA."

The university provost conducted a review of Mr. Barrett's record and course plan and ultimately concluded that he could be trusted to carry out his teaching duties in an appropriate way. The administration said it would be wrong to punish him merely for pushing a harebrained theory about an important event.

Similar reasoning has prevailed at Northwestern University, a private school that continues to employ Arthur Butz, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, despite his opinions on the history of the Third Reich. Mr. Butz stirred a new round of controversy recently when he commended Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for claiming the Holocaust is a myth, which happened to be the thesis of a book by Mr. Butz.

People whose payments support Northwestern, like those who finance the University of Wisconsin-Madison, may think their money is being misused when it goes into the pockets of instructors like these. They can cite Thomas Jefferson's belief that "to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical."

But their dollars are really going to a broader and entirely worthy purpose, namely open inquiry in the pursuit of truth. Mr. Barrett and Mr. Butz have reached crazy and offensive conclusions, but just as bad movies can heighten our appreciation for good ones, their errors can sharpen our perception of the truth. Besides, silencing them doesn't refute their arguments. You can't refute an argument without first hearing it.

To remove them from teaching is to lend them credence by suggesting we're afraid they may change minds. In fact, the best antidote to error is unbridled, vigorous and searching debate. When that sort of debate occurs, the truth has nothing to fear.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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