Tom and Jerry: Defenders of All Things Right and Good

Monday, January 30, 2006

The Bounds of Academic Freedom

Previous posts have called attention to Notre Dame’s The Vagina Monologues debate. However, the underlying issues run much deeper and are at the core of what it means to be a Catholic university. Is it appropriate for a Catholic school to place limits on the events sponsored by one of its departments? Does academic freedom require absolute tolerance of any position sponsored by a member of the university? Do restrictions on the content of sponsored events violate academic freedom? These are some of the questions at the heart of this issue.

Father Jenkins argues there is a distinction between academic inquiry and sponsorship. He said in his address, “Let me be clear on what I see as the problem here. There would no objection to a faculty member assigning the [objectionable] script in a class, or to any student reading or writing a paper on the script of this play…My concern is not with censorship, but with sponsorship.”

I agree with him on this. Academic freedom gives students and teachers the right to inquire, to explore and to pursue ideas free from external coercion. They must have that freedom if they are to pursue the truth. As Catholics, we operate under the belief that certain truths have already been revealed. We should pursue the truth within that context. Does that mean a Catholic school should censor all opposing view points? Absolutely not! Notre Dame must always be up to the challenge of considering ideas contrary to its core Catholic beliefs. By doing so, the university can confront them and strengthen its beliefs in the process.

That being said, there are appropriate forums for academic inquiry. It belongs in forums commonly associated with intellectual pursuits: classrooms, conferences, symposiums and lecture halls. A history professor assigning Hilter’s Mein Kampf as required reading or having it read aloud in class is a legitimate exercise of academic freedom. Furthermore, holding a public reading of Mein Kampf, and doing so in the context of understanding the dangerous ideas that lead to the Nazism, would also be acceptable. Even inviting a pro-Nazi speaker to lecture in an academic forum, with time alotted for the audience to ask questions and offer opositing views, would be an example of academic inquiry. Some may want to place limits on this type of inquiry, and I am certainly not advocating such an invitation. But now, if a department were to sponsor an event in which students dressed in Nazi uniforms, sang Nazi songs and read Mein Kampf with a goal of promoting Hitler’s racist philosophy, then they have crossed the border of academic inquiry into proselytizing. I don’t think any well respected university would sponsor such an event.

Should events designed to promote values contrary to the Catholic character of Notre Dame be sponsored by the university? Professor Glenn Hendler, the Director of Undergraduate Studies in English, writes in The Observer, “[The public], like our students, can understand distinctions between sponsorship and endorsement, between toleration and affirmation, and recognize that when we allow a performance or other presentation on campus, we are almost never sending the message that we support everything that will be said or represented in it.” What would Professor Hendler think about performing a Mein Kampf festival in which students celebrate the "glory days" of Nazi Europe? Would the public be able to see the different between sponsorship and endorsement? I don’t think so. The public would see anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda being promoted by a first rate Catholic school. Furthermore, cancelling such an event would not cause real harm to the value of academic freedom. Professors and students would be as free as before to study Hitler’s ideas and discuss them in an academic setting. They do not need to be part of a large production to do so.

Let me be clear. I am not, in any way, comparing Mein Kampf to The Vagina Monologues or to The Queer Film Festival. I am simply using Mein Kampf as a way of illustrating these principles and demonstrating acceptable limits on what a University sponsors.

In a more general sense, academic inquiry in a Catholic school, should seek to challenge new ideas in the light of Divine Revelation. The ideas that emerge from such a challenge will be richer and closer to the Truth. The university should strive for near complete freedom in a classroom setting, and freedom to invite speakers and guests. Symposiums and discussions, as long as they include a catholic view point, should be a welcome means of inquiry. However, sponsoring an event into order to promote an agenda should meet the higher burden of being consistent with the Catholic character of the University.

How do the Queer Film Festival and The Vagina Monologues fare when applied to these principles? We will see in my next post.


  • Have you read the Vagina Monologues yet? While it operates from the worldview that unmarried people are having sex (which is true), its general theme and "agenda" is for women to embrace and protect that which makes them women. That I would argue is an honorable and even Catholic goal.

    By Anonymous Diane, at Monday, January 30, 2006 3:02:00 PM  

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