On March 30, 2010, officials at the University of Wyoming, citing “security threats” and “controversy,” canceled two talks I was invited to give in early April, one a public lecture entitled “Trudge Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action,” and the other, a talk to faculty and graduate students called “Teaching and Research in the Public Interest: Solidarity and Identity.” I’d been invited in August, 2009, but one week before I was to travel to Laramie, I was told I had been “disinvited.”
In February, as the University began to publicize my scheduled visit, a campaign to rescind the invitation was initiated on right-wing blogs, accelerating quickly to a wider space where a demonizing and dishonest narrative dominated all discussion. A wave of hateful messages and death threats hit the University, and was joined soon enough by a few political leaders and wealthy donors instructing officials in ominous tones to cancel my visit to the campus. On March 28 an administrator wrote to tell me that the University was receiving vicious e-mails and threatening letters, as well as promises of physical disruption were I to show up. This is becoming drearily familiar to me, as I’ll explain.
A particularly despicable note from Frank Smith who lives in Cheyenne and is active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance, said, “Maybe someone could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard (sic) Commerative (sic) Fence and he could bless it or something.” He was referring to Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who was tortured and murdered in 1998, left to die tied to a storm fence outside Laramie.
Republican candidate for Governor Ron Micheli released a letter he’d sent to all members of the University of Wyoming Board of Trustees asking them to rescind the invitation. Matt Mead, another gubernatorial candidate, said through a press release that while he is a self-described “fervent believer in free speech and the free exchange of ideas,” that still allowing me to speak would be “reprehensible.” He concluded that I should have “no place lecturing our students.”
I sympathized with the University, and told the folks I was in touch with how sorry I was that all of this was happening to them. I also said that I thought it was a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, and that it would surely pass. Certainly no matter what a couple of thugs threatened to do, I said, I thought that Wyoming law enforcement could get me to the podium, and I would handle myself from there, as I do elsewhere. I said I thought we should stand together and refuse to accede to these kinds of pressures to demonize someone and suppress students’ right to freely engage in open dialogue. After all a public university is not the personal fiefdom or the political clubhouse of the governor, and donors are not permitted to call the shots when it comes to the content or conduct of academic matters. We should not allow ourselves to collapse in fear if a small mob gathers with torches at the gates. I wouldn’t force myself on the University, of course, but I felt that canceling would be terribly unfair to the faculty and students who had invited me, and would send a big message that bullying works. It would be another step down the slippery slope of giving up on the precious ideal of a free university in a free society.
No good. On March 30, 2010 the University posted an announcement of the cancellation of my visit with a long and rambling comment from President Tom Buchanan. He begins with the obligatory assertion that academic freedom is a core principle of the University, but quickly adds that “freedom requires a commensurate dose of responsibility.” We are charged to enact free speech and thought “in concert with mutual respect.”
Nothing that I did or said in this matter was disrespectful or irresponsible, and yet, in the absence of specific references, readers are led to imagine all kinds of offenses.
The announcement is punctuated with a deep defensiveness: anyone who thinks the University “caved in to external pressure,” Buchanan writes, would be “incorrect.” Anticipating what any casual observer would conclude, he builds a strained and somewhat desperate counter-narrative. Buchanan pleads that UW is “one of the few institutions remaining in today’s environment that garners the confidence of the public,” and that a speech by me would somehow undermine that confidence.
He concludes that “this episode illustrated an opportunity to hear and critically evaluate a variety of ideas thoughtfully, through open, reasoned, and civil debate, it also demonstrates that we must be mindful of the real consequences our actions and decisions have on others.” That’s some sentence, and while it’s impossible to know definitively what he’s referring to as the “episode” (it might be the public lecture itself, but then it could be the cancellation of the lecture, or even the barbarians at the gates threatening to burn the place down, or withhold funds, that would provide the opportunity to critically evaluate matters). It has an unmistakable Orwellian ring: we cancelled that lecture as an expression of our support for lectures! And it’s eerily similar to the classics: we destroyed that village in order to save it! Work will make you free! War is peace!
One of the truly weird qualities of the Buchanan statement is a hole in its center, the deafening silence concerning why the campaign against me was organized in the first place. The reason is familiar to me as noted: in the 1960’s I was a leader of the militant anti-war group, Students for a Democratic Society, and then a founder of the Weather Underground, an organization that carried out dramatic symbolic attacks against several monuments to war and racism, crossed lines of legality, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense. And then during the 2008 presidential I was unwittingly and unwillingly thrust upon the stage because I had known—like thousands of others—Barack Obama in Chicago. The infamous charge that the candidate was “pallin around with terrorists,” designed to injure Obama, also demonized me. I’ve been an educator and professor for decades, but the hard right has accelerated the lunacy against thousands of folks— activists and artists, academics and theorists, outspoken radical thinkers—and wherever possible mounted campaigns exactly like the one in Wyoming. Often university officials stand up on principle and resist the howling mob, as they did recently at St. Mary’s in California; sometimes—as at a student-run conference at the University of Pittsburgh in March—they compromise, restricting access to talks and surrounding a speaker with unwanted and unnecessary police protection; sometimes, as in this case, the university turns and runs. It’s a sad sight.
Of course I wasn’t invited to speak about any of this, and it’s unlikely any of it would have come up without the active campaigning and noisy thunder from the relatively tiny group that is the ultra-right.
I would have focused my talk on the unique characteristics of education in a democracy, an enterprise that rests on the twin pillars of enlightenment and liberation, knowledge and human freedom. Education engages dynamic questions of morality and ethics, identity and location, agency and action. We want to know more, to see more, to experience more in order to do more—to be more competent and powerful and capable in our projects and our pursuits, to be more astute and aware and wide-awake, more fully engaged in the world that we inherit, the world we are simultaneously destined to change.
To deny students the right to question the circumstances of their lives, and to wonder how they might be otherwise, is to deny democracy itself.
It’s reasonable to assume that education in a democracy is distinct from education under a dictatorship or a monarchy; surely school leaders in fascist Germany or Albania or Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa all agreed, for example, that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, do their homework, study hard, and master the subject matters; they also graduated fine scientists and musicians and athletes, so none of those things differentiate a democratic education from any other.
What makes education in a democracy, at least theoretically, distinct is a commitment to a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, and creative force. Every human being is born free and equal in dignity and rights; each is endowed with reason and conscience, and deserves, then, a sense of solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. Democracy is geared toward participation and engagement, and that points to an educational system in which the fullest development of all is seen as the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.
In a vibrant and participatory democracy, we might conclude that whatever the wisest and most privileged parents want for their children is precisely the baseline and standard for what the wider community wants for all of its children. If children of privilege get to have small classes, abundant resources, and a curriculum based on opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the furthest limit, if the Obama kids, for example, attend such a school, one where they also find a respected and unionized teacher corps, shouldn’t that be good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere? Any other ideal for our schools, in John Dewey’s words, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”
We want our students to be able to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I? How did I get here and where am I going? What in the world are my choices? How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue answers wherever they might take them. Our efforts focus not on the production of things so much as on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in civic life.
Teaching in a democracy encourages students to develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands. Education in a democracy is always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider world.
How do our schools at every level—K-16—measure up to the democratic ideal?
Much of what we call schooling forecloses or shuts down or walls off meaningful choice-making. Much of it is based on obedience and conformity, the hallmarks of every authoritarian regime. Much of it banishes the unpopular, squirms in the presence of the unorthodox, hides the unpleasant. There’s no space for skepticism, irreverence, or even doubt. While many long for an education that is transcendent and powerful, we find ourselves too-often locked in situations that reduce schooling to a kind of glorified clerking that passes along a curriculum of received wisdom and predigested and often false bits of information. This is a recipe for disaster in the long run.
Educators, students, and citizens must press for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance; an end to starving public schools—including public higher education—of needed resources and then blaming teachers for dismal outcomes; and an end to the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served. All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, qualified and generously compensated teachers.
We might try now to create open spaces in our schools and our various communities where we expect fresh and startling winds to blow, unaccustomed winds that are sure to electrify and confound and fascinate us. We begin by throwing open the windows. We declare that in this corner of this place—in this open space we are constructing together—people will begin to experience themselves as powerful authors of their own narratives, actors in their own dramas, the essential architects and creators of their own lives, participants in a dynamic and inter-connected community-in-the-making. Here they will discover a zillion ways to articulate their own desires and demands and questions. Here everyone will live in search of rather than in accordance with or in accommodation to. Here we will join one another and our democratic futures can be born.
A primary job of teachers and scholars and journalists, and a responsibility of all engaged citizens, is to challenge orthodoxy, dogma, and mindless complacency, to be skeptical of all authoritative claims, to interrogate and trouble the given and the taken-for-granted. The growth of knowledge, insight, and understanding depends on that kind of effort, and the inevitable clash of ideas that follows must be nourished and not crushed.
As campuses contract and constrain, the main victims becomes truth, honesty, integrity, curiosity, imagination, freedom itself. When college campuses fall silent, other victims include the high school history teacher on the west side of Chicago or in Laramie or Cheyenne, the English literature teacher in Detroit, or the math teacher in an Oakland middle school. They and countless others immediately get the message: be careful what you say; stay close to the official story; stick to the authorized text; keep quiet with your head covered.
In Brecht’s play Galileo the great astronomer set forth into a world dominated by a mighty church and an authoritarian power: “The cities are narrow and so are the brains,” he declared recklessly. Intoxicated with his own insights, Galileo found himself propelled toward revolution. Not only did his radical discoveries about the movement of the stars free them from the “crystal vault” that received truth insistently claimed fastened them to the sky, but his insights suggested something even more dangerous: that we, too, are embarked on a great voyage, that we are free and without the easy support that dogma provides. Here Galileo raised the stakes and risked taking on the establishment in the realm of its own authority, and it struck back fiercely. Forced to renounce his life’s work under the exquisite pressure of the Inquisition, he denounced what he knew to be true, and was welcomed back into the church and the ranks of the faithful, but exiled from humanity—by his own word. A former student confronted him in the street then: “Many on all sides followed you…believing that you stood, not only for a particular view of the movement of the stars, but even more for the liberty of teaching— in all fields. Not then for any particular thoughts, but for the right to think at all. Which is in dispute.”
This is surely in play today: the right to talk to whomever you please, the right to read and wonder, the right to pursue an argument into uncharted spaces, the right to challenge the state or the church and its orthodoxy in the public square. The right to think at all.
This is some of what I would have discussed in Wyoming, but that will not happen, at least not this week. Canceling this talk underlines the urgency of having multiple and far-ranging speeches, dialogue, and discussions at every level and throughout the public square.