The University of Wisconsin takes great pride in its tradition of academic freedom. As a new professor, I was told repeatedly the story of Professor Richard T. Ely (watch the video), a labor economist who was accused by Oliver E. Wells, Wisconsin’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction and a member of the Board of Regents, of providing a moral justification for strikes and boycotts.
Wells made his accusation publicly, in a letter to the editor of The Nation magazine, entitled “The College Anarchist.” This letter was later reprinted in the New York Evening Post. Labor unrest was the dominant social issue of the 1890s, and Wells published his letter in the midst of the Pullman Strike, when fears of anarchy and violence were widespread. As a result of the attention focused on Ely, the Board of Regents appointed a committee to study his work. The committee held a hearing in the old law school building (since demolished to make room for the current building). Although Ely did not rely on the principle of academic freedom for his defense — instead successfully contending simply that Wells’ charges against him were false — one of the regents named John M. Olin (not that John M. Olin) encouraged the Board to adopt a public endorsement of academic freedom. Within that statement was this oft-quoted passage: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” (This language apparently was drafted by C.K. Adams, then-President of the University.) That passage was later placed on a bronze plaque, which is mounted on the University’s main administration building.
I was prompted to think about the statement again this morning, as a listened to a radio program on Ward Churchill, the University of Colorado professor who called the victims of 9/11 “little Eichmanns.” His essay “‘Some People Push Back’: On the Justice of Roosting Chickens” contains the following passage, which sparked the firestorm in Colorado:
True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire â€“ the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved â€“ and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance” â€“ a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore” â€“ counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in â€“ and in many cases excelling at â€“ it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.
If Churchill were a professor at the University of Wisconsin, his statements would still be controversial, but I am confident that he would not be in danger of losing his position. At least not for his statements alone.
For present purposes, however, I am not interested in debating Churchill’s position, but rather in the notion of academic freedom and its relation to truth seeking. The Wisconsin Board of Regents endorsed “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” Were they right that truth is found only by “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing”?
Appropriately, given that the University of Wisconsin is widely known for agricultural studies, “sifting and winnowing” are metaphors taken from ancient agricultural methods by which grain was separated from chaff. In the scriptures, this metaphor is often employed to describe the separation of the wicked from the righteous. (See, e.g., Amos 9:9; Alma 37:15) As far as I can tell, it is not used as a metaphor to describe the search for truth, the separation of the false teachings from true doctrine. Nevertheless, we are admonished frequently to seek truth through a process that sounds like sifting and winnowing. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheepâ€™s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
Metaphorical sifting and winnowing seem both familiar and necessary to spiritual growth, and I suspect that most of us would agree that such sifting and winnowing should be continual. (See, e.g., Alma 26:22) But why “fearless”? When Ward Churchill compares the victims of 9/11 to Nazis, is he being courageous? Or simply reckless in the pursuit of his own political agenda? Although I find his description of the victims outrageous and offensive, it’s impossible for me to judge his motives from this distance. But I can assert this with some certitude: the process of seeking truth necessarily entails some false starts, and it may involve thinking thoughts that some people would consider wacky or even heretical. In my experience, such thoughts are rarely the end of the search, but closer to the beginning. Expressing such thoughts, allowing other people to evaluate and discuss them, can be frightening. In the end, however, I believe that the Wisconsin Board of Regents was right: only by working through this process can we find the truth.