Wednesday, September 26, 2007

To Question Authority

Allow me a moment to weigh in on the recent kerfuffle over Columbia University allowing the much-reviled President of Iran, Ahmadinejad, a forum to speak. Let me begin with an interesting side note. He would not, indeed could not, have been invited to a French university to speak. As a Holocaust denier he is banned from most EU countries since they made denial illegal in July of 1996. (Read here and here). The fact that he was allowed to speak in the US is something of an anomaly.

So for what it’s worth, here’s our opinion. Good for Columbia University! The whole raison d’être of the university system is to train students to think critically, in addition to precise training in their chosen field. The university exists to question authority, not in some fit of envy against those in power, but as a serious institution that trains each new generation to ask itself what it believes why. The university provides an alternate universe in which students get to question their most cherished beliefs, discarding or strengthening their grip on them as they see fit. For this system to work it cannot shy away from powerful characters with unsavory ideas.

When you are confident in your own ideas and ready to entertain those who would destroy you, you can disarm even the most outrageous tyrants. Witness Kruschev and Eisenhower (an analogy already cited elsewhere the web, here and here). When you do not have the tools to deal with disagreement or unfamiliar ideas, you get the overreaching of authority to quash those voices. Ahmadinejad is a weak figure in his own country. We have nothing to fear from his brand of intolerant reading of history and current events. His worldview is not our own. But we do ourselves and our students a disservice by trying to protect ourselves from ‘dangerous’ ideas at a university where questioning authority is the norm. We applaud Columbia for the courage to offer its students the full range of authoritative (authoritarian) voices in our global society. And we applaud CU students who heaped those ideas with the scorn they deserve. Education at work in a democracy.

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