Saturday, October 11, 2008

Infidelities and Verities

By Richard Vedder

On a couple long flights this past week, I read most of a remarkable memoir, Infidel, by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. It is a story of a Muslim woman's ultimately successful journey from an oppressive, intolerant, uneducated, cruel and poor society in Somalia and surrounding countries, to a life of intellectual inquiry, tolerance, and prosperity in Western Europe and America.

That got me thinking further about what I have previously termed the "End of the Enlightenment." Until the last quarter or at least the last half of the last millennium, the bulk of the planet was characterized by the type of society that Ms. Ali knew. There was lots of hatred of diversity from an orthodox religious dogma, little learning, little quest for discovery, lots of poverty. The fundamentalism of modern Islam was found in Christian Europe, albeit perhaps at a slightly diluted level, manifested in such things as the Spanish Inquisition, the persecution of Gailleo, or the Edict of Nantes.

The Renaissance and the Enlightenment brought about modern times, democracy, literacy, discovery, tolerance, and ultimately prosperity to the Western World. Writers like John Locke, William Shakespeare, and Adam Smith all added to our understanding of what it is to be human and have freedom of expression, as did painters like Michaelangelo and Da Vinci. Scientists like Newton and inventors like Gutenberg added to the richness of our lives. In this atmosphere, the medieval universities blossomed into modern institutions that both disseminated and discovered truth and knowledge. Religious dogmatism was replaced by rational, objective, dispassionate intellectual inquiry based on empirical observation.

Many American universities have moved a bit away from the modern approach towards a new type of intolerant fundamentalism, a rejection of evidence for dogmatism of a new sort. A student was almost thrown out of a Ivy League school for yelling "water buffalo" at an annoying fellow student (on the grounds that the words were hurtful and maybe, just maybe, racist). People try to repress research results that say provocative things, such as there are indeed genetic racial differences, or that maybe global warming either does not exist or is a natural phenomenon that does not justify all the hand-wringing and concerns of the environmental community. One of my students was punished for promoting on his personal web site a pro-family, anti-gay web site that he thought was important (the student was a dorm research assistant and the Residence Life Ayatollahs thought his position might be hurtful to gays).

Freedom of expression and the pursuit of rational inquiry have been the exception, not the rule, through human history, and their ultimate triumph in the West ushered in enormous improvements in the quantity and quality of our lives. We must fight attempts in the university community to implement a new secular, indeed rather anti-religious, form of fundamentalism. Down with political correctness, speech codes, and other attempts to return to some of the tyranny and oppression of the human spirit that Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived with for the first two decades of her life.

1 comment:

Ken D. said...

Re budget cuts, as a practical matter most of the cost for higher ed institutions are payroll-related. Therefore substantial budget cuts usually translate into layoffs. The customary way of handling these layoffs in higher ed seems to be to appoint a committee or higher a consultant to make the tough decisions.