The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution.  When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations.  As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances.  Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution."...  ... American Association of University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

Commentary of the Day - March 10, 2005:  Ward Churchill and My Modest Proposal.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

The controversies surrounding Ward Churchill have gotten enormous play, and his fifteen minutes of fame are likely to be lengthened if and when the trustees at the University of Colorado decide to give him the boot.  He is, as they say, an abrasive, polarizing figure.  Many non-academics wonder how a guy who couldn't pass analogy 101 can hold down a tenured job funded by, as the formula goes, "taxpayer dollars."  How dare Churchill  suggest that the victims of 9-11 attack were 'little Eichmanns", or that Israel uses the Holocaust to screen its oppression of the Palestinians?  In fact, how dare Churchill be. . . well, Churchill, complete with his faux Native American dress and arrogant, in-your-face certainties?  As the Irascible Professor points out in a recent posting, there are reasons to believe that he does not, in fact, belong to any recognized Indian tribe and that he plays fast and loose with the  facts of Native American history.

Fortunately, Churchill's fate will not be decided by Joe Six Pack, but, rather, by the long tradition of what constitutes academic freedom, and by what the Constitution protects as free speech.  The latter  guarantees talk you happen to agree with, but more importantly talk that you don't agree with -- including sentences  that set your teeth on edge and that spike your blood pressure.  Churchill certainly belongs to this category.  His rants fall just short of shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater where there is no blaze; and, it is a good bet that he won't win a Presidential medal any time soon.  But does this mean that the "embarrassment factor" is enough for the University of Colorado to send him packing?  As a life-long liberal, I think not -- and I say this knowing full well how much contempt Churchill, as a radical, probably feels for the very liberals who protect him.  No doubt many at the University of Colorado share my view that while I disagree with nearly everything he says, I would  fight to the death to defend his right to say it.  Put less grandly,  none of us want to see politics  become the litmus test by which one can be summarily dismissed from a teaching post.  Sadly enough, the Churchill case makes it clear that ours is a divided nation, with those on the far right wanting his  head while those on the far left  think of him as a man who dares to speak truth to power.

I am aware of the AAUP's statements on academic rights, drafted at a time  when boards of trustees would regularly fire professors who espoused Marxism, and I'm also aware of what the AAUP has to say about academic responsibilities.  As far as I can tell, Professor  Churchill has violated nearly everything the AAUP framers had to say about academic responsibilities -- by giving lectures that are longer on indoctrination than they are on objectivity and by speaking publicly about matters well beyond his area of expertise.

At this point, let me  do a bit of speaking truth to power.  Ward Churchill is hardly the only academic who knows his "rights" far more deeply than his responsibilities.  Indeed, he might well argue that, as an ethnic studies professor, he is doing his job by writing and speaking about the crimes committed by America, then and now.  Moreover, in an age dominated by identity politics -- which created his ethnic studies post in the first place -- the University of Colorado is getting exactly the PC-person they set about hiring.   Ward Churchill pulls down about $4000, plus expenses, every time he takes his "act" to another college or university.  He is a hoot, and the bottom feeders at any school will turn out to applaud anybody who is, in their words, "different," and who is at the center of a raging controversy.  Granted, UC has been in other pickles (e.g., their football program) and managed to survive.  One way or another, they will survive Ward Churchill, but as this case plays itself out, other colleges and universities are surely watching and they will be much more savvy in terms of hiring and tenure decisions.

Which brings me at long last to my modest proposal.  For any candidate in a field dealing largely with America, be it American literature, American history, American studies, etc. -- I propose that he or she be asked to choose three examples of things America has done wrong, following by three examples of things America has done right.  I realize that this is a simple test, and worry a bit that it might be too simplistic.  But, I think it will screen out of consideration those people  who, like Churchill, could give you 300 examples of American crimes against humanity but not a single instance of anything our country did that was good.

I am growing  tired of academics whose ideologies make them both predictable and dreary, and I care not a fig if they are professional America knockers or professional America boosters.  As with any country possessing  the power to "murder and create" (T.S. Eliot's phrase), America has not always used its might wisely, but there are hundreds of crosses dotting the Normandy beachheads that remind us of  the times when we were prepared to sacrifice to set others free.  Among the many things Mr. Churchill needs to learn is this lesson and others like it.

Churchill, I am told, likes nothing better than to debate with people who do not regard capitalism as a crime and who do not equate the victims of 9-11 with the "technicrats" (Churchill's word) who administer the genocide at Auschwitz.  Given that this is the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, what Churchill perpetrates is an obscenity, period.  I hope that Churchill has a chance to read these words, and I welcome his response, knowing full well that talking to a true believer is usually wasted breath.  We  might never end up sending each other seasonal "good wishes" cards but in the end, that doesn't matter.  There ought to be enough room in the  world of academia for people who see things differently -- some supporting  the war in Iraq, many more opposing it -- because what we share at bottom is a commitment to pursue the truth wherever it may lead.  That is what academic freedom protects, not the shenanigans of Mr. Churchill.
©2005 Sanford Pinsker
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor of humanities who currently resides in south Florida where he continues to write opinion pieces on cloudy days.

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© 2005 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.