Books, Scholars, Debate, and Academic Freedom
By Bobby Neal Winters
First people learned to write. They wrote on clay. They wrote on animal skin. They wrote on the leaves of plants sewn together. They wrote on paper when it came along. These writings were gathered into scrolls and codices. Some gathered these writings together in one place. And scholars were drawn to these places.
Scholars like to learn things. You can learn things by looking at the world around you and figuring it out, but that takes a long time. If you can have a conversation with someone who knows about it so they can teach you about it, the process goes faster. But those who know are sometimes far away, sometimes they are busy, and sometimes they die. That is why you need a book.
Anyone who has ever written knows that people don’t always understand what you write. What we say the first time even in speech can be ambiguous, and can only be clarified in a dynamic give and take process.
So when scholars were drawn to the places where the books were gathered to read the books of those long dead, they clarified the interpretation of the books by open discourse. Two honest individuals can read the same book and come to different ideas of what that book means. They can attempt to come to a mutual understanding by stating their reasons for interpreting a passage one way or the other, and then the other side is free to examine the reasoning.
There has been a long history of this sort of debate. Back in the twelfth century, I believe, Peter Abelard had some interpretations that impinged upon the church doctrine, running him afoul of Bernard of Clairvaux (later know as Saint Bernard). Abelard challenge Bernard to a debate, but upon arriving there discovered it was a trial for heresy. After hearing all the charges, Abelard sat in silence for half an hour (a record for professors that still stands) and then said that he appealed to the Pope. Today Abelard is remembered for bedding a student and being castrated by her brothers; and every time Bernard’s name is mentioned people think of a large, friendly dog with a barrel of booze around it’s neck.
That paragraph got out of hand. My point is that scholarly debate has a long, checkered history.
Mathematicians have it easy. When other scholars say things,people sometimes want to shoot them. When mathematicians speak, more often we hear people say, “Please shoot me.” It’s one of the blessings of being in a technical field. Many other disciplines don’t have this luxury. Their study leads scholars into areas that people understand, care about, and have strong opinions on.
There is a long history of scholarly debate, as I pointed out before. The argument/ counter-argument means of proceeding is one way. There have always been some who, instead of going after your argument, go after you. There have been duels; there have been fisticuffs; and sometimes people who disagree with you go after your livelihood.
This last is a common technique in and out of academia. There are a number of outspoken entertainers who will testify to this. At the university, we have the tradition of tenure and academic freedom to protect open debate. It is somewhat ironic that often scholars have to keep their mouths shut to get tenure. I rather suspect that tenure was developed to protect academics from each other as much as to protect us from political forces from the outside. I am sure someone will tell me if I am wrong.
And I hope they do tell me if I am wrong. This is how we learn.
There is also something to be said for structuring academic debate, about keeping things in technical language so as not to draw laypersons into the debate, but whatever rules are set up there will still be ugly incidents.
But we have to keep talking.
(Bobby Winters, a native of Harden City, Oklahoma, blogs at redneckmath.blogspot.com and okieinexile.blogspot.com. He invites you to “like” the National Association of Lawn Mowers on Facebook. )