From the Community | A parable of academic freedom

Dear Prof. Berk,

Together with Prof. Lipsick, I brought before the Faculty Senate, in its May 11 session, the resolution that calls for the dissolution of the ties between our University and Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Mercer. I feel obliged to respond to your criticism of our resolution in the op-ed published in The Daily on May 17. Like many other opponents of our resolution, you base your criticism on the idea of academic freedom, which you (and many others) erroneously confuse with freedom of speech. As many scholars who work on this subject point out, one of the key differences between academic freedom and freedom of speech is that the former is inseparable from responsibility: responsibility to students, to the field, and to the public in general (for an excellent exploration of these two concepts, see the book by Yale Law School professor Robert Post, “Democracy, Expertise, and Academic Freedom: A First Amendment Jurisprudence for the Modern State,” 2012). In your op-ed article, you simply ignore this important distinction and collapse academic freedom and freedom of speech. That is a very convenient red herring, and it has been used often these days.

However, much more perplexing than this confusion of ideas is your use of the example of Nazi Germany to illustrate your point. I am not aware of any statements Hitler made about academic freedom. Whatever his beliefs might have been on that subject, they were clearly expressed in the public burnings of books by Jews, communists, and anyone else who did not adhere to the ideology of the National-Socialist party (speaking of analogies, you might want to pay attention to book banning in Florida and some other states: there is but a small step from banning to burning of books). I am afraid that, on that point, you are making an even more erroneous and potentially very damaging confusion. I came of age in the long shadow of the Nazi occupation of Serbia, and this brings to mind a couple of stories that can help clarify the misconstructions that you publicize in your article. The stories I’m going to share with you come from the repertoire of narratives that have helped, over the decades, devastated communities to work through their grief and loss, and to come to terms with the world that allowed for the unthinkable atrocities they suffered to happen. These stories are devastating and hard to tell, but I will try to do my best. Even if they are apocryphal, they provide valuable insights into important distinctions that we need to make in order to secure our ethical survival.

In mid-October 1941, in the course of only three days, Nazi forces summarily executed over 2,000 civilians in my hometown of Kraljevo in central Serbia. After the war, the killing fields were turned into a memorial park for the victims. Squeezed between factories, from which the workers were taken out for execution, the memorial consists of hundreds of stylized tree stubs made of white marble. Every October 14, the whole city would gather there to remember and mourn its dead. I remember that, on our way to the memorial park, we would pass by a solitary unmarked tomb placed by the side of the road, away from the mass graves. Growing up, I would ask the adults about that burial place, and they would tell me that it belonged to a soldier who refused to shoot at the mass of civilians. The commanding officer killed him on the spot. In stating his refusal to open fire, the Wehrmacht soldier made a decision that amounted to him stepping out of the firing squad and effectively positioning himself in front of it. In doing this, he rejected the (un)ethical community that coalesced in Germany under the Nazi rule, which allowed for unpunished execution of individuals who didn’t conform with certain racial ideals: the Jews, the mentally disabled, the Roma, the homosexuals, etc. In occupied lands, the Slavs were added, abundantly, to that list. As the American law scholar Lon L. Fuller powerfully argued in his debate with H. L. A. Hart on the subject of the persecution of crimes committed during the Nazi era, social laws and regulations are erected on the foundations consisting of the values shared by the ethical communities that they, in turn, come to regulate. That applies to the laws in any organized state including the Nazi Germany, as well as to regulations guiding other social institutions, such as the Code of Conduct at our University. You see, Prof. Berk, in our resolution, we are not questioning anyone’s academic freedom (especially that of non-academics such as Hitler, Murdoch, and Mercer). Instead, we are calling attention to the values we need to uphold in order to maintain a functioning ethical community at our institution.

The second story is even more difficult for me to go back to and narrate here. But, I will go on. We are back in that bloody October. Only one week after the carnage in my hometown, the Nazi occupying forces continued their killing frenzy in the neighboring town of Kragujevac. Justifying the mass executions as a revenge for the acts of armed resistance and a prevention of future similar actions, they again rounded and killed some 3,000 innocent people. Only, with the horrific difference that this time around, among the victims was a fifth-grade class from the local school for boys. As the story goes, they took them and their teacher out from their classroom and to the execution grounds. (There was a rumor going around kids in my elementary school that our old literature teacher was one of the survivors: he was said to be too tiny to be slain with other boys.) According to one version of the story, local Quislings who assisted the Nazi occupying forces in preparations for this atrocity offered to let the teacher go, as there was a shortage of instructors in schools, but he refused. After the Nazis forced him and his pupils to line up in front of a trench that would serve as their common grave, he was reported to have said: “Go ahead, fire — even now I am teaching my class.”

In standing up to his executioners, the teacher was exercising his freedom of speech; in standing by his students, he was living up to his academic freedom. I will try to clarify this further. When he spoke his mind, the teacher was asserting his freedom of speech. It was not offered to him on a silver plate: he claimed it, because he was an essentially free man, and he paid for it dearly. When he held fast to his responsibility to his students, he was embracing his academic freedom. I hope this will help you, Prof. Berk, to understand the difference between freedom of speech and academic freedom: the first one is the right that some people are entitled to and some have to fight for; the second is a calling that one responds to, and is thus held responsible for. We constitute an ethical community by recognizing ourselves in, and answering to, certain values. That includes clearly stating which ideas are threatening the ethical sustainability of the community in which we live and work.

There are stories, few and far between, that come to us as drops of wisdom distilled from immeasurable human suffering. The two stories that I shared with you, Prof. Berk, and with the readers of The Daily belong to that corpus of narratives. They hold the kind of knowledge that cannot be simulated. If institutions of higher learning aspire to serve as custodians to anything, they should be custodians to this kind of knowledge. (And here is the paradox: we need these stories more than they need us!) I approach these stories with a great deal of awe and respect. My decision to share them in this way was not easy. I did that because I believe that we live at an important juncture in our culture in academia and outside of it. In the general confusion that surrounds us, we often tend to forget that what the University has to offer to young people is not only a path to a life of material prosperity, but access to precious knowledge contained in these stories, which can provide them with a moral compass. This knowledge is priceless. There is no money that Mercer or Murdoch or any other rich donor possesses that could purchase that knowledge. This higher learning is earned, not bought. If we expect students and faculty to live up to its standards, so should everyone else.

Yours truly,

Branislav Jakovljević

Originally posted 2023-05-31 07:34:30.