Inside Higher Ed is a consistently interesting source of news and opinion on higher education issues. I frequently share postings from its Monday through Friday newsletter with my fellow librarians and recommend they sign up to get it themselves. From time to time, it does post articles specifically on academic librarianship, but its real value to librarians lies in broadening our perspectives to the wider context of higher education. In fact, many of the postings most relevant to our profession never even mention libraries.
One of those postings was a December 30, 2008 report by Scott Jaschick entitled, “David Horowitz does the MLA.” Horowitz is, of course, David Horowitz of the David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the “Academic Bill of Rights.” His appearance at the Modern Language Association was, to say the least, controversial because He has frequently attacked the MLA and many other organizations in higher ed. Horowitz was asked to speak on a panel with three literary scholars, one of whom supported some of Horowitz’s views. The Radical Caucus of the MLA was rumored to be planning a disruption, but did not and the panel spoke as planned.
As Scott Jaschick pointed out, “Horowitz didn’t break new ground in his critiques of academe — nor did Horowitz’s critics in their analysis of him.” But I do think it merits note in this blog. The MLA stood up for intellectual freedom by demonstrating a willingness to allow all voices to be heard, even one many members feel to be destructive, ill conceived, and dishonest. The event both as a panel discussion and as an object of controversy and discussion seems to have served both sides as an opportunity to advance their ideas and make their critiques. The MLA demonstrated its faith in its members’ and in the wider academic audience’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and sense from nonsense for itself.
Librarians, of course, are frequently involved in this issue. We build collections representing the full range of thought and opinion and defend those collections when objections arise. As a collection developer in religion and philosophy, I have purchase a considerable number of works on the Evolution vs Creationism controversy, sometimes buying works that, from my own point of view, offered weak and confused arguments but that spoke with the real voice of a position’s proponents. I have also been in the position of having to discuss with library staff the importance of retaining books that they felt unfairly critized or even ridiculed their religion. In all these cases, of course, the key is representing all voices and trusting to our patrons to make up their own minds.
I also think I should say that when I say “all” I mean “all’ and not “both.” The American Media has a distressing tendency to reduce every issue to two positions and to decide that they can demonstrate their unbiased reportage by making sure that a speaker for the pro position is always balanced by one from the con. In truth, little in this world can honestly be reduced to simply oppositional positions.
I also don’t feel there is a need to develop collections in which each of the positions has parity in amount of materials that represent its view. It would be absurd for the Modern Language Association to invite Horowitz or one of his supporters to speak every time a scholar advanced an argument with which they disagree. Similarly, I make no attempt to balance ever book on evolution or even every book criticizing creationism/intelligent design with one promoting creationism/intelligent design.
The other thing that Scott Jaschick’s article and the many comments on the article make clear is that controversy is emotional and those who engage in debate must be prepared for the rough and tumble. Academic freedom lets your voice be heard, but it also lets anyone else who feels like giving it a shot make a reply.