Friday, February 24, 2006

Notre Dame and Academic Freedom

A friend of mine attends Notre Dame and recently sent a few of us this link to a story in the NY Times about some of the recent academic freedom/freedom of expression issues in which the campus is embroiled. One of the sparks to this controversy is t-shirts (shown in a photo in the story) which read, “Gay? Fine By Me.” I must say, given the sense of humor in our circle of friends, we have a lot of fun playing with that t-shirt idea. We have discussed the relative merits of t-shirts that read, “Necrophile? Fine by me?” or the oddly insignificant, “Steve? Fine By Me.” Anyway, you get the idea.

The article does a good job of presenting the lay of the land and some of the special issues involved with being a major University and religiously committed on a significant level at the same time. Does academic freedom/freedom of speech mean anything ought to be honestly presented? Does a Catholic or religious commitment mean that there are other priorities higher up the food chain than “freedom” of academic expression? Can or should some expressions be squelched in the service of these higher priorities?

I was pondering Aristotle and virtue this morning. (That sentence makes me sound smarter than I really am.) But I believe Aristotle would be in favor of excluding some forms of expression from education. If it did not serve the flourishing of the human, it probably served to debase it. Therefore, the best thing for any individual’s education is to avoid such base and animalistic things. Plato actually argues that in his Republic. So if these Greeks are right, the question now is, does “The Vagina Monologues” serve to increase virtue and human flourishing, or is it base and profane?

A couple of interesting quotes from the piece. From a student:

Some students said that the understanding of academic freedom at a Catholic university should be different from that at a secular university. "We have our own measures of what's good and what's right," said Nicholas Matich, 22, the politics editor of The Irish Rover, a conservative student newspaper. " 'The Vagina Monologues' is performed everywhere else in the academic world. It doesn't mean Notre Dame should do it, too."

From a former faculty member and current watchdog at the University:

"I think the real test of a great university," he [Father Hesburgh] said, "is that you are fair to the opposition and that you get their point of view out there. You engage them. You want to get students' minds working. You don't want mindless Catholics. You want intelligent, successful Catholics."

Does a great University allow anything to be taken seriously, or does it allow only serious things to be taken seriously-including opposing points of view. Is a great University gauged by the number of voices heard on campus or in its ability to discern between voices?

Of course, many will object that gauging what is serious is wholly subjective, and therefore oppressive and given to censorship. I submit that that response may be given by those who need to read more of their Aristotle.

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