When Academia Favors Values Over Facts

By Alexander Joffe

Published April 01, 2005, issue of April 01, 2005.
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At Campus Watch, one of the main problems we address is politics disguised as pedagogy. Our critique of Columbia University’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department, at the center of the recent, much-publicized controversy, has been that faculty members present their own political opinions to the exclusion of others and in place of a complete or contextualized account.

Such problems at Columbia, however, are anything but new. Words written nearly four decades ago, after another crisis at the university, could just as easily apply to the situation today:

“Universities, as others have said, have become knowledge factories with much wider and possibly more powerful constituencies than the students they educate. At least some branches of the university, moreover, are attracting to their faculties a new type of academician — the man of action as well as intellect whose interest is not the pursuit of truth for its own sake but to shape society from a vantage point combining academic security, intellectual weapons, and political action.”

Published in 1968, the Report of the Fact-Finding Commission Appointed to Investigate the Disturbances at Columbia University in April and May 1968, better known as the Cox Commission Report, was particularly hard on the administration’s handling of the situation that led to the student takeover of several campus buildings and to their subsequent expulsion by the police. But the report was also strongly critical of students and of their disruptive and violent tactics.

Overall, it is a subtle and frank analysis. The formula “academic security, intellectual weapons, and political action” is a marvel of conciseness, and the phrase resonates strongly across the 37 years since it was first published. Put aside the antiquated “man of action” rhetoric, and we have an apt description of the situation today: an academic enterprise that decisively favors values over facts. Pursuing this logic, the report continues:

“If universities are to be actively engaged in social endeavor, how and by whom are decisions to be made concerning when, how, where, and to what uses their knowledge shall be applied?… Are choices left to individual professors? If so, are the choices really left to them? What if their political decisions seem badly mistaken?”

The report’s relevance for today is manifest. First, it demonstrates how a university can come to terms with a wrenching crisis. To be sure, Columbia’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department is no 1968. But today’s issues, precisely the questions of “academic security, intellectual weapons, and political action” — mentioned almost in passing so long ago — demand no less thoughtful and complete a study. The university’s efforts thus far, an ad hoc committee addressing grievance procedures, are a far cry from what is necessary.

Second is the need to understand context. The roots of the 1968 crisis at Columbia went back many years, from now-forgotten protests over Navy ROTC ceremonies in 1965, to decisions to relocate facilities in 1962, a curriculum that seems to have been fixed in the 1950s, seemingly perpetual problems of building a gymnasium and faculty aloofness toward students.

How did Columbia become a university dedicated, as one student put it to me, to postcolonialism and postmodernism, where Edward Said is assigned in “every class except maybe math”? Any attempt to solve a problem like Columbia’s Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department — and others scattered throughout the university, where faculty members substitute trendy politics and confessional posturing for scholarship — cannot be accomplished without intensive study of the university itself and the circumstances that produced its current condition.

But study of circumstances and structural remedies are predicated on the most profound question of all: What is a university for? Are universities tools for social engineering, or vessels for the transmission of “timeless knowledge”? Both extremes are undesirable, but the problems with the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department force us to ask: What is the current and proper balance between the two? These questions need to be brought out into the open. When they are, an honest assessment of what this latest crisis is really about will be possible.

Alexander Joffe is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.






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