The hypocrisy of academic debate

The recent news that students and faculty at Rutgers strongly objected to Condoleeza Rice as that institution’s choice for commencement speaker, leading to her bowing out of that role, was mildly disturbing at first. The more I think about it, though, the more hypocritical this situation appears.

Let me be clear that I am not rising to Dr. Rice’s defense because I find all of her decisions agreeable, including her politics. I am politically a lot more conservative than many in the library profession but that doesn’t mean I offer knee-jerk, unthinking support to everything a certain U.S. political party has done in the past, or all of its positions today. But come on, folks, the Rutgers commencement situation is pretty ludicrous.

We have a highly intelligent, extremely accomplished world figure who comes from one of the most prestigious universities in the world. We have a woman, an African American woman, who is clearly multi-faceted. But apparently because of her politics and because of her support for the war in Iraq, she is to be reviled and shunned by an institution that purports to be a haven of learning and education.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. What bothers me, and makes me pause, though, is that we in academia pay homage to the idea of academic debate, of academic freedom. Note that my reference to the “idea” of academic debate is a deliberate choice, because I think in many cases, that’s all it is. An idea or ideal.

What so often happens in reality, and seems to be playing out in the Rutgers commencement news this week, is that we love academic debate, but only if it adheres to what we believe, what we think is right. Heaven help us if we actually hear from someone who shares a radically different viewpoint…and in a college/university setting no less! So often we give token support to free thinking and open minds but in reality, it is just hypocrisy, and our minds remain as rigidly shut as ever.

I wish I could say that my profession — librarianship — is different, is more enlightened, but it’s not. Take a look at all of the much ballyhooed, famous speakers that are invited to speak at American Library Association (ALA) conferences. They are all selected by and pander to a particular, mostly left-leaning mindset. There is no ALA keynote speaker in recent memory who really challenges and engages librarians with a radically different mindset that I can name. If I’m way off here, someone with better memory or research skills, please correct me.

Here’s what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that politically left-leaning people are bad. I’m not saying that politically right-leaning people are inherently good. I am also not concluding, nor do I believe, that everything is relative and there is no truth or truths to adhere to. After all, I chose to work in a particular academic institution in a particular kind of environment, for a reason.

However, I am saying that we should see things as they really are, and recognize the hypocrisy of academic debate. We should work together to provide balance and insight into nuances and facets and angles that don’t fit neatly into one camp or the other. Let’s stop name-calling and bashing and labeling everyone else in simplistic, one-dimensional terms.

Let’s do the really scary thing and actually try to understand one another.

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