Paul Pillar

General McChrystal and Academic Freedom

An opinion piece at The Atlantic by Gian Gentile, identified as a U.S. Army colonel who teaches history at West Point, offers one of the strangest interpretations of academic freedom I have seen. The subject is the teaching of a course at Yale by Stanley McChrystal, the retired U.S. Army general and former commander of forces in Afghanistan. Referencing a recent article in the New York Times about McChrystal's teaching gig at Yale, Colonel Gentile castigates what he describes as “Yale's extraordinary act” of imposing “special conditions” on students by treating McChrystal's classes as off the record. The colonel goes on to talk about accountability and to note proudly that cadets are free to take anything he says in his classes at West Point and to tell it to the world.

It is not entirely clear what the colonel fears is being said by the retired general in that closed classroom at Yale, but he seems to have a thing about counterinsurgency. He wonders whether portions of the Yale faculty have been “seduced by the 'better war' myth” and suggests that students who have “little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan” are getting hoodwinked. (By the way, Gentile does not note the Times article mentioning McChrystal's tendency to “wander into anecdotes about sensitive operations in Iraq and Afghanistan” as a reason for students being instructed not to repeat his remarks outside the classroom.)

“Extraordinary act”? “Special conditions”? These phrases caught my eye, given that I have kept off the record everything that is said in the university classes I have taught. I consider this important in facilitating the freest, most uninhibited discussion by students and instructor alike.

Incredibly, Gentile says that Yale's ground rules for McChrystal's classes “bend the dictates of academic freedom.” Quite the opposite. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines academic freedom as “the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure.” Keeping personal attribution of remarks from leaving the classroom is one of the best ways to safeguard that freedom—especially the part about freedom from public pressure. Public attribution opens one up to that type of pressure.

Accountability certainly is important, and the statement on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors speaks about the responsibilities and “special obligations” of professors. Most universities achieve accountability in the quality and integrity of teaching through such means as student-written evaluations and in-class monitoring by university officials. Public attribution of in-class remarks is less likely to achieve accountability than to provide fodder for those with political agendas. The worst examples have been things like the McCarthy-like Campus Watch, which compiled “dossiers” on college professors deemed by the Campus Watch people to be too critical of Israel.

Personal experience has probably made me more attuned than Colonel Gentile to some of these dangers. Some ten years ago, while still a serving government official, I gave a guest lecture to a class at a different university from the one at which I would later teach. In illustrating a point in response to a question from a student, I made a brief and mildly critical reference to a single formulation in a presidential speech. A few days later, a garbled and inflated version of my comment appeared in a now-defunct right-wing publication under the headline “Senior Intelligence Official Blasts President's Speech.” The story was embellished further in subsequent retellings by others with a political agenda, especially editorial writers at the Wall Street Journal. By a couple of years later, in the midst of the 2004 presidential election campaign, the version being told was that I had given a “public speech” attacking the president's policies. And all this nonsense started with an attribution leaving the confines of a classroom.

Not just on university campuses—and not just with retired military officers teaching on campuses—the biggest threat to free and unbiased thought and discourse is not some bit of doctrine an instructor sneaks into a lecture in a closed classroom. A much bigger threat is the twisting and manipulation of what others have said, to advance a political cause and to intimidate or silence those who do not agree with the cause.

Image: Bluedogtn