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UW-MADISON -- week in review

Bascom Hall on the UW-Madison campus.

Republican legislators have just reached a new low. Apparently they’re now spending their time scouring the University of Wisconsin course lists for titles they don’t like, such as "The Problem of Whiteness."

Let’s not dwell on the fact that a course title might not tell you everything about what students will learn in a semester of reading, writing and discussion. And let’s not spend too much time on the idea that students in majority-white Wisconsin might benefit from thinking for a few months about what race means and how it works.

Let’s focus instead on the shameless authoritarianism of elected officials. Suppressing academic speech isn’t a small thing. It’s a favorite tactic of authoritarian regimes. The Nazis burned books they saw as “Un-German.” The Soviets insisted that historians write only narratives that glorified Russian Communism. The Iranian government reviews every book before it decides whether or not it should be published. Authors banned in Iran include Plato and Kurt Vonnegut.

Countless Americans have lost their lives fighting these regimes. Why? Because we valued the freedoms our enemies did not. We believed that a free society does not close down discussion because some ideas are uncomfortable or challenging. A free society does not squelch debate and dissent. A free society welcomes a range of viewpoints and believes that we will all be wiser for having questioned our assumptions.

Authoritarian regimes do the opposite. They squelch dissent and vilify dissenters. They demand obedience. They go after anyone who does not immediately agree and submit. They abuse people who question their authority, calling them degenerate and unpatriotic.

Universities are often the first targets of authoritarian rule. And that’s because it’s our job to question authority. Say what you want about professors, but we spend our lives pursuing the truth. This means relentlessly interrogating what we think we know, and pushing ourselves to ask questions that feel, even to ourselves, uncomfortable.

We insist on evidence and logic to support our claims. All of our publications are subject to rigorous peer review by experts around the world. We can’t win tenure unless the most respected people in the field confirm that we have produced original and valuable knowledge.

We are not paid by lobbyists. We do not earn more or less money if we take one position rather than another. And so we’re free to explore unpopular hypotheses, and some of these turn out to be true.

In universities, we believe that strong arguments will be stronger for encountering opposition, and that weak arguments will sink by virtue of their poor evidence or logic. We do not believe in shutting down questions before they are asked.

To be sure, like every other social institution, the university is imperfect. Some instructors insist on a single view or fail to hear the counter-arguments. But these are the outliers because the university rewards precisely those who ask exciting new questions and try out untested hypotheses. That’s why authoritarian regimes always dream of shutting universities down.

I myself left the University of Wisconsin after 14 years last summer because legislators were battering the university for their own political ends. They clearly didn’t care at all that they were endangering one of the brightest gems of U.S. public education. I’m glad I got out in time, but I tremble for the hardworking students and colleagues I left behind.

For shame, Steve Nass! For shame, Dave Murphy! The worst of it is that you’re acting in deeply un-American ways. You’re besmirching the memories of those who lost their lives in war to protect American freedoms. Maybe you know that your own arguments can’t stand up to rigorous standards of logic and evidence, so you think your best bet is to blackmail the university to stay quiet. But that’s just plain cowardly, and it belongs in the worst tradition of authoritarian rule.

Wisconsin is better than that, isn’t it? It surely used to be.

Caroline Levine resigned in 2016 as chair of the English department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is now Ryan Professor of the Humanities at Cornell University.

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