Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Russian novelist and winner of the 1970 Nobel Prize for literature, died yesterday at the age of 89.
I have for a long time considered Solzhenitsyn to be one of my intellectual heroes. His novels moved me deeply, particularly One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which at a slim 200 pages packs a more devastating punch than most novels three times its length and has a place on my list of 10 Books that Changed My Life. His novel The First Circle is another favorite for its brutal clarity about life as an intellectual political prisoner in Stalinist Russia. All of his novels lead me into a deep appreciation of the freedoms which I too often take for granted today.
He combined his powerful writing with an authentic faith and moral courage which enabled him not only to stand up to the soul-crushing effects of political imprisonment but also to look Western culture in the eye and criticize, in an unflinching but somehow non-adversarial way, our loss of moral direction. Here’s an excerpt from his commencement speech at Harvard in 1978 which says it well:
We are now experiencing the consequences of mistakes which had not been noticed at the beginning of the journey. On the way from the Renaissance to our days we have enriched our experience, but we have lost the concept of a Supreme Complete Entity which used to restrain our passions and our irresponsibility. We have placed too much hope in political and social reforms, only to find out that we were being deprived of our most precious possession: our spiritual life. In the East, it is destroyed by the dealings and machinations of the ruling party. In the West, commercial interests tend to suffocate it. This is the real crisis. […]
If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it.
All of us who work in education would do well to think about that.
Seems like it’s been ages since we’ve heard of crazed left-wing university students throwing pies at speakers, so I’m almost nostalgic about this:
Brown University is condemning the actions of two people — at least one of whom is a student — who threw a pie-like substance Tuesday night at Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times who was speaking on the campus. Friedman took a few minutes to clean himself up, but continued his talk. Michael Chapman, vice president for public affairs and university relations, issued a statement in which he said: “Freedom of speech is prized on a university campus. While Brown students are encouraged to express their opinions on any subject and in a variety of forums, the university does not tolerate such assaults against a speaker or disrupting the right of others to hear a speaker’s perspectives.” The statement said that one of those involved was apprehended and identified as a student. “The university will review this incident through its non-academic disciplinary system to determine the appropriate response.”
This is the same Thomas Friedman, by the way, who wrote The World is Flat, the seminal work for much of today’s edublogging. More:
The Providence Journal reported that the incident involved paper plates with shamrock-colored whipped cream. After they were thrown at Friedman, one of those protesting threw in the air leaflets that criticized Friedman, saying: “Thomas Friedman deserves a pie in the face because of his sickeningly cheery applause for free market capitalism’s conquest of the planet, for telling the world that the free market and techno fixes can save us from climate change. From carbon trading to biofuels, these distractions are dangerous in and of themselves, while encouraging inaction with respect to the true problems at hand.”
These morons have just enough intellect and courage to hit somebody in the face with a pie and then run away, trailing badly-written quasi-philosophical leaflets in their wake; but not enough to actually write real books and give public lectures about the issues. Here’s hoping Brown acts with some toughness on this.
Some quotes from the Inside Higher Ed article:
“At times, however, the value of the Church’s contribution to the public forum is questioned. It is important therefore to recall that the truths of faith and of reason never contradict one another. The Church’s mission, in fact, involves her in humanity’s struggle to arrive at truth. In articulating revealed truth she serves all members of society by purifying reason, ensuring that it remains open to the consideration of ultimate truths. Drawing upon divine wisdom, she sheds light on the foundation of human morality and ethics, and reminds all groups in society that it is not praxis that creates truth but truth that should serve as the basis of praxis.”
“Truth,” he continued a little later in his speech, “means more than knowledge: knowing the truth leads us to discover the good. Truth speaks to the individual in his or her the entirety, inviting us to respond with our whole being.” […]
“While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in — a participation in Being itself. Hence authentic freedom can never be attained by turning away from God. Such a choice would ultimately disregard the very truth we need in order to understand ourselves.”
Some interesting comments as well about academic freedom in that article, too.
The comments thus far appear to come mostly from hardcore rationalists who appear to think that if you cannot taste, touch, feel, see, or hear it, then it doesn’t exist; and that rationality and the vague concept of “enlightenment” apart from faith is the ideal end state for humanity. I’ve learned that there’s no point in trying to engage such people.
For my part, I found myself wishing that we Protestants were half as articulate about the relationship between faith and reason as the Pope is (and perhaps the Catholic Church is).
I’m on the Promotion and Tenure Committee here, and my two colleagues and I on the committee just finished the first of two solid weeks of reviewing evaluation portfolios of all the faculty up for promotion, tenure, and annual review. It’s great fun. But seriously, I’ve been thinking a lot about tenure this week. In the more exasperating moments, I’ve wished that we were one of those colleges that doesn’t do tenure any more at all, but rather some kind of contract system.
First of all, that would make us rare. According to the blurb for this book on colleges without tenure, 97% of research universities and 99% of four-year public universities offer tenure — and apparently 91% of small private colleges (like mine). The number of colleges without tenure is small, but I think it’s growing. Certainly I hear a lot of rumbling among administrators (although I haven’t ever heard it among my own) that tenure is an antiquated system that does nothing more than guarantee that you’ll end up with a bunch of professors who have precisely zero incentive to improve on anything once they’ve busted their humps to get tenure in the first place; and colleges ought to make it easier to get rid of recalcitrant profs — or simply make it easier to get rid of everybody in case of financial troubles. And as a P&T member, contracts sure do sound easier to deal with than tenure.
But I wonder just how much different things really are under a contract system. Wouldn’t professors still have to put together some sort of case for renewal of contracts that amounts to a post-tenure review? And wouldn’t there have to be some faculty body — a P&T Committee — to review all that stuff? The only difference I can see is that (1) the prof’s job is really on the line every five years, unlike in the tenure system, (2) your academic freedom is never really guaranteed, and (3) under contracts, you have to take on faith the idea that the administrators you work with over the years will not abuse the ability to deny a contract renewal in the future.
If this is really true, then why do some people prefer contracts over tenure, and why are some administrators really interested in replacing tenure with contracts?
Editorial: Today we have articles #10 and #11 in the weeklong retrospective series here at CO9s. The twelfth and final one will come tomorrow, and then it’ll be back to regular posting.
This article was written this past summer, just after Ward Churchill had been fired. Even before his firing, I really believed that the main issue in the Churchill saga had gotten lost. People were merely choosing sides — the lefties taking Churchill’s side (see the Peter Kerstein reference in the main article) and the righties reflexively going the other way. But I didn’t believe, nor do I believe now, that this was the right way to see it all. The main point was that the man lied — about himself, about his research, in the research itself that he purportedly — and falsely — claimed he did. That he did so is on the public record and beyond dispute. That some would whitewash the fact by making him a martyr for academic freedom is as shameful as it is predictable.
I see the whole Churchill affair as just an extension of academic dishonesty, which I’ve already expressed my distaste for.
Truth and consequences for Ward Churchill
Originally posted: July 25, 2007
Ward Churchill has been fired:
More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill’s writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.
The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted “bullshit” as the board vote was announced.
While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year’s salary, which for him is just under $100,000.
The university’s Board of Regents got it right by firing Churchill. Continue reading
Ward Churchill has been fired:
More than two and a half years after Ward Churchill’s writings on 9/11 set off a furor, and more than a year after a faculty panel at the University of Colorado at Boulder found him guilty of repeated, intentional academic misconduct, the University of Colorado Board of Regents voted 8-1 Tuesday evening to fire him.The vote followed a special, all-day meeting of the board, in which it heard in private from Churchill, a faculty panel and from Hank Brown, president of the University of Colorado System, who in May recommended dismissing Churchill from his tenured post. The regents emerged from their private deliberations at around 5:30 p.m. Colorado time and voted to fire Churchill, but they did not discuss their views and they quickly adjourned. A small group of Churchill supporters in the audience shouted “bullshit” as the board vote was announced.While the firing is effective immediately, Churchill is entitled under Colorado regulations to receive one year’s salary, which for him is just under $100,000.
The university’s Board of Regents got it right by firing Churchill. Had they elected to fire him for his political beliefs and for his writing, it would have been a terrible violation of Churchill’s academic freedom and free speech rights. As appalling as one may find his views, he has the right to hold them and to publish about them. The reason Churchill was fired, instead, was because of “repeated, intentional academic misconduct” which included plagiarism, falsification of sources, and fabrication of data. If this were a student in a university, that student would have been shown the door long before this behavior got to the point that Churchill’s behavior did. No faculty member can be allowed to break the rules of scholarship so egregiously over such a long period of time, and tenure provides minimal protection, at best, to faculty from this kind of misconduct.Peter Kerstein writes (in his blog in which all the comments are apparently closed), “This situation would never have occurred had he not defied conventional wisdom in his depiction of American casualties in a negative manner.” That is merely a partial truth. The whole truth is that situation would never had occurred if Churchill hadn’t plagiarized and falsified his work. Had Churchill applied the same standards of integrity that we expect from our students, no amount of scrutiny from any political camp would have produced anything actionable. It is not a violation of academic freedom to be punished for academic misconduct unearthed because your work attracted attention. Faculty do not have the right to be excused from the notoriety that their work brings them.Faculty and students are free in a university to hold unpopular views and publish about them. But if a faculty member — who after all is a professional scholar and bound by the rules of the profession — does so, her/his scholarship must possess the strength and integrity necessary to survive scrutiny. And the more provocative your findings, the stronger your scholarship must be to back those findings up. This is a basic tenet of published scholarship. In my discipline of mathematics, claims about mathematical truth will undergo scrutiny, the intensity of which is proportional to the strength or boldness of the results — because mathematicians want to know the truth. (Ask my former Complex Analysis professor who claimed to have proved the Twin Prime Conjecture.) If a mathematician’s results draw attention to previous work in which there were errors or falsifications, you would never see people raising the hue and cry for their having been uncovered — again, because the primary thing is to know the truth, and as a corollary, to eliminate untruth where it occurs.So ultimately this case is about whether the academy will accept false — indeed, falsified — attempts to uncover truth, and look the other way if they are found out of political concerns. CU says they will not. Churchill now plans to sue the university, so the story is not over yet, but I for one hope that the right thing continues to be done.
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