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Another reflection on academia

I had the chance a couple of days ago to Greg and Jennifer’s podcast where they interviewed Professor Scott Appleby from Notre Dame.  It was, to say the least, a very entertaining if slightly frustrating episode.  I’ll leave it to you to listen to the episode – I don’t think my comments require you going through it all but it certainly, at the least, would not hurt.

In the middle of the discussion between Greg and Prof. Appleby the professor admitted there were multiple possible interpretations of the intent of the university in extending the invitation to President Obama and giving him an honorary Law degree.  He asserted that the most charitable explanation was the only reasonable one and the only one people should accept.  In that right there he reminded me that academics and academia exist in a sphere all their own and forget that not everyone else see the world through their glasses.

This is more than just the ivory tower or liberal demagoguery that I’m talking about here.  Academia, particularly the university environment, exists outside of the influences that affect the lives most of us live.  Granted, there are exceptions to every rule, but we’re not here to pick that nit.  Prof. Appleby’s argument boils down to, if I can paraphrase, “if there’s a possible positive interpretation of Notre Dame’s actions that is the only plausible one and anyone who disagrees is doing so out of their own private motives.”  Tell me where else you get to do something and then demand everyone else agree with your selected interpretation.

That leads me to my second observation.  People have been railing about how the Vatican has done such a poor job of anticipating reactions to various statements in the recent past.  Yet somehow those same people aren’t making the same complaints about Notre Dame’s complete failure in anticipating the reaction to this action.  There’s a fundamental difference in reaction on the part of the university which I think is the genesis of this different reaction by the pundits.  When the Vatican makes a mistake (of late, at least) it has generally admitted in some form the shortcoming, apologized for it and tried to move the discussion back to what they’d intended.  Notre Dame instead has come out swinging, saying it has done nothing wrong and that everyone else is at fault for their malicious interpretations.  The former is red meat to those who have any reason to find fault; the latter puts them on their heels.

For reasons that still elude me universities have been given (or perhaps, have taken) the right to define the terms of discussion regarding anything they do and have, as can be seen in this case,  taken broad privilege with that right.  When you get to deal the cards and decide the rules of the game as it’s being played it’s no wonder things have slid just a little off the straight-and-narrow.  Somehow, in some way, the academic world needs to realize that it can’t dictate reality to those around it and come to see that things such as academic inquiry are not, in fact, carte blancher to ignore the desires of everyone else.  True freedom, and this includes academic freedom as well, is the freedom to do what is right, not just to do whatever one finds intriguing, exciting or glamorous at the time.  I don’t know about you though, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.  Sadly.

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