Yale flunks academic freedom

Yale flunks academic freedom

Which university is more likely to defend academia’s basic commitment to sharing ideas and knowledge in an open and unconstrained way, West Point or Yale? You’d probably think it would be Yale, that well-known bastion of tweedy academics and liberal values. How wrong you’d be.

As West Point faculty member Gian Gentile outlines in a fascinating piece in the Atlantic, former U.S. Afghan commander Stanley McChrystal has been teaching a course at Yale’s Jackson Institute of Global Affairs on strategy and leadership. Nothing wrong with that: Plenty of universities (including my own) hire practitioners to share insights from the real world with students. And I’ve got no problem having a former general teach a course. But in a shocking departure from normal academic practices, Yale requires students taking the course to sign a non-disclosure form, pledging that they will not divulge what is said in the course to outsiders. In other words, McChrystal is teaching an "off-the-record" course.

This restriction is so contrary to the normal practice of universities that it is hard to know where to begin. Academic institutions exist to pursue knowledge, to teach what we know to our students, and to instill in them an appreciation for free and open inquiry. The whole principle of academic freedom rests on the idea that knowledge is best advanced by allowing ideas to blossom and to be shared without restriction. In this way, good ideas can be validated and retained and bad ideas or conjectures can be scrutinized and eventually excluded. By telling students in McChrystal’s class that they cannot share what they learn with others, Yale is artificially constraining the normal give-and-take of ideas. There may be vigorous discussions inside that particular classroom, but the rest of Yale (and the larger world) won’t know about them. Secrecy of any kind is fundamentally at odds with the principles that universities stand for, yet here Yale has enshrined it in one of their courses.

A commitment to free and open discussion also keeps the focus on the ideas themselves, rather than on the identity or the supposed prestige of the faculty member leading the course. Giving McChrystal a special exemption immediately tells Yale students that the general is a "Very Important Person" who gets to be treated differently from other members of the faculty. Again, that’s not how universities are supposed to work: People taking my courses aren’t supposed to accept what I tell them because I am the professor and they are mere students. They are supposed to accept what I tell them only if I’ve successfully convinced them it is useful and makes sense. And they are free — even encouraged — to disagree with me, especially if they have good reason to do so and can make their objections stick. And I want them to talk about my courses outside of class; maybe someone they know will point out a new way to think about an issue or identify a mistake I’ve made. But if I made my students sign a non-disclosure form, I would limit their capacity to hold me accountable.  

Requiring students to sign a non-disclosure form also sends the subtle but unmistakable signal that the instructor is imparting secret knowledge that is too hot or potentially controversial to be shared with the outside world.  I can easily imagine students lapping this up — we all like thinking we’re getting info that others aren’t privy to — but this is just not how universities are supposed to work.

Yale officials might argue that McChrystal is a unique asset for their teaching program, and that the only way they could convince him to teach there was to promise him that some student wouldn’t blab about the course to the Yale Daily News or the New York Times. But that argument won’t wash: If McChrystal really believes what he’s teaching, then he should be willing to have it openly discussed. He shouldn’t be able to win arguments in the classroom by saying, "Now let me tell you about some really secret stuff I did in Afghanistan, stuff you won’t find out about in books. Trust me." He should be willing to be held accountable for what he says to his students, and not just by those who happen to be sitting there (and whom he might eventually be grading). If some students disagree with him, he should be willing to have them voice their disagreements to the rest of the class, but also to their roommates, friends, parents, other faculty members, and yes, even to reporters. That’s the same risk that all of us run when we teach: All of our students are free to talk about what they learn with anyone they want. What’s General McChrystal so afraid of?

Yale’s abandoning of its principles is itself a symptom of the growing deference that Americans now grant the professional military (and to a lesser extent, top members of the broader national security establishment). The country has been at war for over a decade, and there’s an inevitable tendency for civilians to start treating those who’ve been fighting these wars with kid gloves. This tendency is not healthy, however, because the professional military has its own interests and world view — as such, it is not necessarily the best judge of what is in the overall interests of the nation. National security is a topic that affects all Americans, and it is more likely to be openly and intelligently debated when we don’t give any of the participants (and especially not those with particular interests in the subject) a free pass.