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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2001

Now's the Time for Rational Response

Tom Booth
In recent years there have been an increased number of occurrences wherein academic freedom has been the subject of report and discussion. Veracity of positions of fact taken by academics has been ignored and dismissed, discounted and shunned or even maligned and discredited. Worse still, the right and responsibility of academics to advance highly informed and cogently reasoned critical thought on ideas, processes and works have been brought into question both within and outside of the "academy." The attempt is to constrain and fragment academic freedom in various contextual constructions. Such actions threaten to trivialize and, most unfortunately at this time, weaken the effectiveness of the intrinsic contribution of academics in society at large.

The Ottawa Citizen recently recognized that academic freedom "... is essential in a democracy because of its central role in facilitating scientific and intellectual advancement." In a world of "big pharmacy" and terminator genes, among other institutional and societal challenges, it is clear that application of the principles and responsibility of academic freedom is anything but trivial. Academic freedom is not passive and mute, it is — and must be — active and have voice.

With reference to the events of Sept. 11, Education International's general secretary, Fred van Leeuwen, advances: "Yesterday's barbarity may have far reaching implications. It has certainly given a new meaning to safety and security, and to the concept of war and peace. The combat against terrorism and the fundamentalism that breeds it, requires intensified international co-operation and solidarity. Education unions have a special role to play in promoting and protecting democratic values." He goes on to state that the role of teachers begins in the classroom.

Noted scholar Noam Chomsky pointedly indicates that, as a result of events previous to and around the Sept. 11 "... major atrocities," there are "... many possible ramifications for undermining civil liberties and internal freedom."

The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Executive Board declared: "... resistance to efforts to use this tragedy to curtail our civil liberties or to engage in military adventures that can lead only to more carnage and senseless loss of life. Our greatest memorial to our fallen brothers and sisters will be a world of peace, tolerance and understanding ..."

The debate on implications for civil liberties in Canada currently rages as I write this column and is apt to be before us, as academics, in the months ahead. Principles and values inherent in academic freedom will be our guides.

Society identifies our voices as important and 'essential' not only in advancing science and intellectual endeavor but also in taking on our role in democracy. Academic life comes with responsibility to willingly pursue knowledge, truth and understanding and to uphold and defend the values of reason, respect, and justice upon which our institutions and our societies depend. In practice, academic freedom is unyielding and in this sense I often think of it as the "terrible responsibility."

Many of us view ourselves as strictly defined and circumscribed by the specific fields in which we work. We have, in the main, become more and more specialized. Many of us do not feel comfortable or qualified to address ideas and issues outside of our areas of expertise.

However, we were taught, and teach our students, to think critically. We first and foremost apply scholarship grounded in a range of precedents and the questioning of precepts. Critical thinking directs our analytical pursuit of knowledge and, as citizens, we are looked to as voices of reason and the presenters of truth. Our dedication and commitment to promoting understanding and the public good are widely acknowledged. Through the discipline of critical approach and exhaustive investigation we are qualified to develop positions on issues outside our speci-fic fields. We can indeed dedicate ourselves to finding paths to peace through reason, knowledge and understanding, illuminated by the torch of academic freedom. We do have voices.