A Harvardian’s View of Academic Freedom

By Tal Fortgang ’17

Sometimes you deal with your ideological opponents’ best and most nuanced arguments. Other times, you deal with an opinion piece that appeared in the Harvard Crimson on Feb 18.

Reasonable, freedom-loving Americans, dig in your cleats. This is a hanging curve right down the middle.

In the editorial, Harvard undergraduate student Sandra Y.L. Korn advocates the usurpation of academic freedom—the marketplace of ideas that characterizes institutions of learning and critical thought—by what she calls “academic justice.”  “Justice” would be “a more rigorous standard” of research and discussion, one which unfortunately might not allow for the author to research the meaning of “rigorous,” which is the exact opposite of what she proposes.

Korn’s premise claims some arguments and opinions deserve more credence than others. On its face, that is of course true, but one must wonder why, if an opinion is so self-evidently wrongful and bad, it needs to be censored completely to be rejected. Wouldn’t bad research and bad talking points lose credit on the merit of content? Does Korn have no faith that people can distill good points from bad, or is she convinced that those with whom she disagrees are moral hazards to anyone who might listen and, horror of horrors, be persuaded?

Justice resides solely on Korn’s side, of course, because she knows everything there is to know about all things and is wholly qualified to determine what has academic merit—what is “just” (this elusive question was one that even Socrates could not answer). And she is prepared to deliver judgment. That is, with the help of her “university community” she presupposes has the same ideas of what constitutes “oppression.” Certainly, everyone agrees about what exactly constitutes “racism, sexism and heterosexism,” and how uniquely awful is any research done that “counters our goals.” Heteronormativity is sacrilege; liberal-normativity is necessary.

Furthermore, no mention of what the “goals” are is actually made, though the implication is that the University has been transformed from a place of critical thinking to a hub of activism, something Korn seems to take for granted. It is that fundamental misjudgment that characterizes Korn’s work: she simply fails to see the futility and folly of devoting “educational” institutions to activism.

Korn’s main targets, the “oppressors” who stand to lose from the proposed change in academic standard, include Harvey Mansfield, Professor of Government at Harvard, one of the few conservative voices of Harvard’s faculty. Perhaps he draws Korn’s ire because he’s the only one standing in the way of another A on the transcript; or maybe it’s his politics. It is indeed shocking that Korn desires “to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position.” It is ironic that she target an ideological opponent in the name of “social justice,” which incessantly touts the benefits of diversity. Presumably this includes diversity of opinion as well. But that is, after all, the best way to win arguments: don’t let your counterpart speak.

That stark element of Korn’s argument fails to hold water even from a simple logical standpoint, but it seems far more nefarious considering the history of manipulating the publication of research for predetermined political ends. Her proposal reeks of Lysenkoism, and reflects an atmosphere of political correctness that is vaguely Soviet, very disheartening, and quite frightening.

The grounds for shutting down Mansfield’s opinions stems from a quote from his 2006 book, “Manliness.” Wrote Mansfield, with ellipses provided by Korn: “to resist rape…a woman needs a certain type of ladylike modesty.” Now, the simple fact that a man used the word “rape” should certainly be grounds for dismissal. But, in the sake of what one might call justice, it’s worth noting that the context in which Mansfield wrote the above was that it takes “more than martial arts” to defend against rape, it takes “a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment.” In other words, women need a deeply ingrained sense of self-worth and propriety to muster the rage the beat the daylights out of a wanton attacker. Horrifying.

Next, unsurprisingly and justifiably in the name of justice, Korn decries the Syrian government that has killed hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Just kidding! She supports the American Studies Association’s boycott of Israel, the Middle East’s lone democracy and bastion of full gender and religious equality. Korn reminds everyone in this one-sided debate in which Palestinians are unfailingly the victims and Israelis the malicious aggressor that “only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.”

I’m not sure a more despicable sentence has ever been penned in a campus publication. Put aside for a moment the admirable historical amnesia from which Korn seems to be suffering, wherein she forgets how Israel had to defend itself from the thugs in its neighborhood time and again and again and again and again and again. To somehow paint the Palestinian cause as the “moral upper hand” is completely disingenuous, not to mention downright offensive to Zionists, supporters of Israel, who do in fact care about “justice”—though they are not so imbecilic as Korn as to try and monopolize the term .  It’s pretty funny, though, that Korn advocates boycotting Israeli institutions (something Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who is by the way in his tenth year of his four-year term, does not advocate) depriving them of the very right that separates Israel from all nearby countries—academic freedom. A boycott of Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, or Iranian institutions would be futile, because citizens of those countries are already denied basic freedoms. In trying to demonize Israel, Korn and her BDS comrades have exposed its greatest strength.

Portraying Israel as the bad guy, the potential target of “academic justice,” is shortsighted and certainly not “rigorous.” But it should be no surprise that someone with such a perverse sense of the place of the university in America would choose Israel as a target. It’s just too easy to hold them to a higher standard than their rather belligerent neighbors, to fail to empathize with any pro-Israel perspective, to consider for just a moment everything Israel has been through that may compel them to act the way they do. It’s all part of one exceptional system of narrow-mindedness to which Korn subscribes, where there is freedom of speech for me, and not for thee.

Korn’s ideas seek to undermine the foundations of this great nation with an under-informed, cavalier naïveté that ignores hundreds of years of philosophical debate regarding the value of all speech. The proposal is shallow, pathetic, flippant, and unbecoming of a student at a top university. If academic justice truly reigned, Korn would be stripped of her editor’s post and sentenced to four years of critical thinking.

Political Theory