Gay Marriage, Climate Change, and Academic Freedom

Peter Wood

I oppose same sex marriage. I am agnostic on the extent to which human activities contribute to global warming or climate change and whether the phenomena themselves warrant the major economic dislocations that are proposed as remedies.

In both cases, my positions appear to be at substantial distance from the opinions that prevail in American higher education. And I hasten to add, they are my opinions, not positions taken by the National Association of Scholars. NAS has taken no position on gay marriage or global warming and by its nature can’t. It is an organization that deals with academic standards, the governance of colleges and universities, higher education finance, and public policies that affect scholarship and learning. And it has a membership of some 3,000 mostly academics whose personal views on substantive social and political issues are all over the map.

Academic Freedom and ɯopǝǝɹɟ ɔıɯǝpɐɔɐ

There is, however, a connection between my opinions on gay marriage and climate change and the NAS. Since its founding in 1987, NAS has championed academic freedom. Not, to be sure, the strange inversion of academic freedom—ɯopǝǝɹɟ ɔıɯǝpɐɔɐ—that triumphantly defends the right of faculty members to propagandize their students and to treat scholarship as a subspecies of politics. Rather, NAS has defended the academic freedom of faculty members and students to think and to express their own thoughts in situations where they are pressured to conform to someone else’s political standard.

NAS traces its version of academic freedom most directly to the AAUP’s classic 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The AAUP revisited those principles in 1940 and 1970 without retreating from their core. But in recent years, via declarations such as Freedom in the Classroom (2007) and Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions (2011), the AAUP has thrown its weight behind ɯopǝǝɹɟ ɔıɯǝpɐɔɐ. The regnant idea is that the great danger to free inquiry on campus is pressure from censorious outsiders.

But American society has shown very little disposition to get in the way of academics who abuse their professional opportunities. The prevailing political pressures on academics to conform aren’t from zealous trustees, capitalist plutocrats, the Koch brothers, Tea Partiers, or overbearing state legislators. Though all of these occasionally weigh in, the day-to-day reality is that academic freedom is compromised by academic colleagues. The pressure—relentless on many campuses—comes from the custodians of political correctness.

So the NAS finds one of its roles in defending those who are singled out for their failure to conform. These include the graduate students in social work or counseling who refuse to profess the current dogma on homosexuality; the religious dissenters who can’t deny their belief in a god who has ordered the universe; the faculty members who expect allegations of sexual harassment to be adjudicated by impartial procedures; and faculty members who have been ill-treated simply because they are perceived to be conservatives. These are all, in sociological parlance, members of “out-groups.” Their views are not positively valued on most campuses and, in many situations, are clearly unwelcome. The resulting exclusions ought to be a matter of concern for those who care about the integrity of higher education.  But they are seldom of interest to those whose focus is ɯopǝǝɹɟ ɔıɯǝpɐɔɐ.

Same Sex & Warming

President Obama has, of course, just announced that his “evolving views” on gay marriage have just reached their destination: he met ABC’s Robin Roberts in the White House yesterday and said, “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The President did not offer much explanation for this affirmation, not that much was needed. We all understand the pro-gay marriage argument, which centers on the idea of “equality” and equal treatment under the law. President Obama evoked the idea and connected it to his Christian faith: “The thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the golden rule—you know, treat others the way you want to be treated.  And I think that’s what we need to impart to our kids, and that’s what motivates me as president.”

Meanwhile, a few pages further in today’s New York Times, comes James Hansen’s op-ed, “Game Over for the Climate.” Hansen, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science proponent of global warming theory, tells us that if Canada proceeds to develop its tar sands as a source of petroleum, the resulting release of greenhouse gases will disintegrate the ice sheets, raise the level of the oceans,  drive half the world’s species to extinction, and put civilization “at risk.” Hansen says, “we need to reduce emissions dramatically.”

No surprises here either. President Obama and Dr. Hansen give voice to views that are instantly clear to us. We have all heard the arguments in each case elaborated, with detail and often with passion, countless times. But how often have we heard, let alone dispassionately considered, the counterarguments? Can we suppose that any possible counterarguments are so intellectually weak, factually ill-supported, or ethically compromised that we can afford to ignore them altogether?

In practical terms, that’s what we are teaching our students. I have no statistics on this, but I doubt that one student in a hundred, and perhaps far fewer than that, has ever read a serious secular argument against same-sex marriage, and most would be at a dead loss even to imagine what such an argument would say. The principle of “fairness” has swept everything else out of the way, except for those die-hard religionists who insist dogmatically that God doesn’t countenance the union of same sex couples.

As for global warming, there is a vague awareness that some scientists and others are refusing to get aboard the “climate consensus.” But these folks are dismissed as fringe who are either lost to intellectual eccentricity or who have sold out to special interests who dispute the scientific facts merely to stave off regulations that would decrease their profits from the exploitation of fossil fuels.

Cultivating Ignorance

There is something amiss in this picture. Actually more than one thing. First, a gulf has opened up on both issues between the view that prevails in the academy and the views of great many Americans outside the academy. As we just saw in North Carolina, large numbers of Americans doubt the wisdom of same sex marriage; and as numerous polls show, large numbers of Americans are skeptical of the claims of climate scientists such as Dr. Hanson. The gulf can be explained, of course, with a satisfying shrug: ‘we are smart and informed, and they are dumb and ignorant.’ I rather doubt that explanation, but it does look like the dominant conceit on campus.  In my view, higher education deserves to give us something better. If large numbers of our fellow citizens, after years and years of hearing the same arguments, are unpersuaded, might it be wise to look seriously at the grounds for their skepticism?

Second, there is more than one kind of ignorance. Not knowing what your opponents say and being quick with the reasons why you don’t need to take their views into account is not a very good foundation for advancing your own knowledge. Note that our students are deprived both of the opportunity to understand these particular debates and of the opportunity to see public policy shaped by debate itself. If we have culture war-style polarization, our one-sided form of college instruction is surely a contributing reason.

Third, there is the curious matter of timelines. The advocates of same sex marriage ask us to think almost exclusively in the here-and-now. Not being able to marry is unfair. To whom? To gay couples that want the same benefits that are available to anyone else. And extending those benefits can’t possibly hurt heterosexual couples. The advocates of global warming theory, by contrast, ask us to think almost exclusively in terms of tomorrow—and often a tomorrow that is fifty or a hundred years off. The glaciers will melt; sea levels rise; islands and coast lines drown; deserts expand; etc. Fine: different phenomena are best apprehended on different time lines.

But it seems worth pondering that the timelines that are privileged in both cases are not the only ones that might be relevant. Gay marriage looks rather different through the lens of the human evolutionary past and different as well if one looks to the long term, inter-generational implications of deconstructing heterosexual marriage as the foundation of society. Are we being “fair” to the generations to come by taking steps that will are likely to weaken the bio-social interdependencies of mothers and fathers to each other and to their children?

Gay marriage inevitably alters the definition of marriage and the accompanying social norms, and the effects of these sorts of changes, though incidental to the present, may well be dramatic in several generations. We are, with minimal forethought, altering the way our society sustains and reproduces itself.

And global warming theory looks pretty different if one looks at the geologic record of climate oscillations, or for that matter at the enormous changes demanded by figures such as Dr. Hansen on the basis of a very brief period of scientific inquiry.

My purpose here isn’t to argue or elaborate any of these points. I’m rather concerned that we have shortchanged a generation of students by foreclosing the debates that they ought to have heard and participated in.  Instead we have a vast cohort of students and college graduates who believe, without reason, that these are matters that are settled among all people of good-will who have taken the time to become informed.

They are, in fact, not informed at all.  As John Stuart Mill put it, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.”

I blame the rise of ɯopǝǝɹɟ ɔıɯǝpɐɔɐ. We have indulged and cosseted a handful of popular ideologies and convinced ourselves that the hard discipline of demanding that ideas—all ideas— be debated on their merits is too much trouble when we already know the answers we want. What we need is genuine academic freedom, and for that the dissenters will have to be welcomed back to the seminar table.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog on May 11, 2012. 

Image: Flickr 3Alexander Photography

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