Trustees | Intellectual Diversity

Censorship takes stage on campus

BOSTON HERALD   |  November 22, 2017 by Michael Poliakoff

The censors seem to be out in force lately on the American college campus. November saw Brandeis University cancel the world premiere of a play about Lenny Bruce. Then Knox College in Illinois canceled the staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Person of Szechwan.” In both cases, the charge against the dramas was racial insensitivity. And in both cases, only cloudy reasoning could lead viewers to ignore the clear anti-racist intent of these plays.

The ironies are overwhelming, with poor Lenny and Bertolt bludgeoned first from the right and now from the left. In 1947, Brecht found himself face-to-face with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, charged with his creation of “a number of very revolutionary poems, plays, and other writings.” In 1961, Bruce, a quintessential counter-culture figure, was prosecuted for “obscenity.” It’s also ironic that Brandeis bears the name of one of America’s greatest defenders of the First Amendment.

American higher education needs to stop and think how far down the road of suppressing literature it has already gone — and how perilous that road is, both for education and for a free society. We know well where that road has led.

At a number of places in Germany, many of them on university campuses, you can find plaques marking the spots where, in 1933, the Nazis burned books. Some of these grim plaques quote the 19th century German author Heinrich Heine: “There where people burn books they will ultimately burn people too.”

Heine wrote those lines in 1821, placed in the mouth of a Moor appalled at a report of the burning of the Koran. A little over a century later, Heine’s own works, along with those of Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Joyce, Tolstoy and many others, were burned by the Nazis — acts that were soon followed indeed by the murder and burning of millions throughout Europe.

Brecht was one of the authors whose works were tossed into those Nazi bonfires.

Colleges and universities have their own milder, yet still destructive, methods of enforcing orthodoxies: for students, sanctions ranging from shaming to expulsion; for faculty, termination of employment. And, of course, censorship.

If you now get a sinking feeling when you read about Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” being pulled from school library shelves or the demand at colleges and universities for “trigger warning” labels attached to Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” you have good reason for your disquiet.

What protects a free society is the free exchange of ideas. The college campus, which shapes the minds and hearts of the next generation of leaders, was once a relatively reliable sanctuary for that exchange, the cradle of intellectual freedom. Now it is too often the battleground.

The way forward is evident at institutions like the University of Chicago, which has codified principles that confidently defend the airing of ideas “thought by some or even by most members of the university community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.”

It is that attitude that puts all viewpoints into the crucible of debate and analysis from which new truths can emerge. Colleges and universities that want to be on the right side of history have a clear choice to make. They need to make it decisively, and soon.

Michael B. Poliakoff is president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. 


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