Banned Books to Dissident Scholars: Promoting Higher Education Values to Curb Censorship

Academic Freedom, Banned Books Week, Censorship, General Interest

Consider inviting a scholar at risk to visit your campus during Banned Books Week. Learn more by visiting the Scholars at Risk website.

By: guest bloggers Adam Braver and Chelsea Blackburn Cohen

Over the last several years, the state of academic freedom around the world has ushered renewed scrutiny. Yet how often do we consider how remarkable it is to engage in dialogue and debate about the key concept that protects the very space that allows us to do so? Academic freedom relies on a community of individuals who continually fight for it; it fails to exist if untested.

Student reading and highlighting the Bible

We write this from a seat with several views: a Senior Program Officer for the international Scholars at Risk Network (SAR), and a University Library Program Director, novelist, and Steering Committee Chair of the United States national section of Scholars at Risk. In short, nearly all aspects of our professional life have an intersecting point with the threat of suppression of ideas.

But first let’s unpack our understanding of academic freedom:

There are primarily two working perspectives of academic freedom: the traditional view and the socially engaged view. The traditional view is centered on the professional autonomy and learning that occurs within the academic and educational space. In this view, academic freedom is relegated to the classroom, the conference, and the literature. The socially engaged view of academic freedom argues that the institution, like the environment in which it functions, ought to be responsive to the changing dynamics of our social and political life. In contrast to the more traditional perspective, this view puts forth the notion that the academic professional, by the merit of their training and areas of expertise, should extend knowledge beyond the walls of the academy for social good. It expects that when academics conduct themselves within the professional norms of their discipline, their rights to academic freedom are untethered to the physical bounds of institutions where it is enshrined. While the traditional view may offer more hard lines and clarity, the socially engaged view promises greater inclusivity and opportunity to advance positive social change.

Scholars at Risk Network

In the United States in particular, academic freedom and free speech have become polemical issues, especially when institutions contend with controversial speakers on their campuses. Free speech, of course, is already protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and while not unrelated to academic freedom, free speech operates on a different set of principles. While institutions may wrestle with their own complexities and circumstances, controversial speaker incidents reveal more troubling implications for another core higher education value: institutional autonomy—the degree of self-governance necessary for effective decision-making—than academic freedom. Consider this: when institutional autonomy is weak, outside influential forces and pressures are likely strong, greatly increasing vulnerabilities for those who dare to ask questions or share ideas that run contrary to the objectives of those outside forces.

We think about all of this in terms of Banned Books Week. It is easy to relegate the censoring of books to something awash with sepia tone, a cautionary tale that reminds us of the risks of expressing ideas that question a seated culture. For many of us, it is most comfortable to showcase those classic books that are universally understood to be part of the fabric of our contemporary literary culture, with the intention that we will be shocked and amazed that anyone could have felt that threatened by that book.

But we’d propose that this is not a cautionary tale of less enlightened days. In fact, that very same level of banning and suppressing thought is very much alive across the world—something that we all should be mindful when we think in terms of freedom of expression, intellectual freedom, and academic freedom. So even as we remember and marvel at how now-classic works such as To Kill a Mockingbird or Slaughterhouse-Five or Beloved or The Red Badge of Courage once were perceived as menaces to our sense of being, we also think of intellectuals, writers, and researchers around the world who, at this very moment, live under threat for the crimes of critical thinking and daring to share their ideas; in other words, resisting censorship at the risk of violent and/or coercive threats from their own state actors or internal extremists.

And each person carries a powerful and moving story to tell.

We think of Uygur economics professor Ilham Tohti, serving a life sentence in China for the crime of blogging, which served as a platform to engage Uyghurs and Han Chinese in dialogue. We think of Dr. Ahmadreza Djalali, scholar of disaster medicine, in failing health and facing a death sentence in Iran for refusing to spy on his academic colleagues in Europe. We think of Professor Hatoon al-Fassi of Saudi Arabia, a women’s right activist, who, along with others had disappeared for months on end after voicing evidence-based critiques about her country’s systemic treatment of women. And while less severe, we think of academics in our own country, regularly forced to self-censor as ideas of free expression on college campuses are debated but remain uncertain.

In the spirit of Banned Books Week’s theme, “Censorship Leaves Us in the Dark,” it is worth pausing to consider the hundreds of scholars worldwide who face daily risks on our behalf to think, debate, share, and challenge ideas. They are not the cautionary tale, they are all of us.

Adam Braver is on faculty and University Library Program Director at Roger Williams University in Bristol, RI. With Scholars at Risk, he coordinates the SAR Student Advocacy Seminars (a program that provides university and college students with the opportunity to develop human rights research and advocacy skills through direct engagement on behalf of threatened scholars), as well as serves as Steering Committee Chair for the SAR-United States national section. He is the author of six novels, and editor of the Broken Silence series.

Chelsea Blackburn Cohen is Senior Program Officer, North America at Scholars at Risk at New York University, where she supports network activities and conducts research related to higher education values, human rights advocacy, and the protection of threatened scholars. She has a PhD in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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