Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Bryan and Mencken on Academic Freedom

I’ve recently been enjoying Terry Teachout’s excellent biography, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken. I’ve just read his account of the Scopes Trial, and was struck by a couple of passages that seem relevant to recent discussions of Ward Churchill and Larry Summers. The first comes from William Jennings Bryan, who assisted the State of Tennessee in prosecuting the case against Scopes:

A scientific soviet is attempting to dictate what is taught in our schools. It is the smallest, the most impudent, and the most tyrannical oligarchy that ever attempted to exercise arbitrary power.... If it is contended that an instructor has a right to teach anything he likes, I reply that the parents who pay the salary have a right to decide what shall be taught.

Mencken despised Bryan and just about everything he stood for, but here’s what he said about the Scopes case:

No principle is at stake in Dayton[Tennessee, where the episode occurred]save the principle that school teachers, like plumbers, should stick to the job that is set for them.... The issue of free speech is quite irrelevant. When a pedagogue takes his oath of office he renounces the right to free speech as certainly as a bishop does, or a colonel in the army, or an editorial writer on a newspaper. He becomes a paid propagandist of certain definite doctrines and attitudes, mainly determined specifically and in advance, and every time he departs from them deliberately he deliberately swindles his employers.

Discussions - 2 Comments

Once again, Mencken waxes hyperbolic. It’s not all that cut and dried. Teachers have to depart from "orthodoxy" when their data and experience tell them it is justified ... this is the entire point of academic freedom.

What distinguishes the legitimate departure from orthodoxy and Ward Churchill’s crazy ranting is data and experience. He can have his own opinions, but he can’t have his own facts. When academics engage in bitter political discourse, they cheat not academics or ’the people’ but science and truth itself.

That’s why Churchill should be fired.

Well that and the fact that Churchill has advocated violent revolution against his employer (he does teach at a State school). When I was a security guard at a large insurance company, if I had stood around in the foyer with tough looking hoodlums waving an assault rifle in the air and talking about how my employer was the center of evil in the modern world and should be "off the planet" I am pretty sure I would have been sacked. Where has the Colorado Board of Regents been? Ahh liberalism.. being so racked with delicious spasms of guilt and shame that you won’t even defend yourself.

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