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A Common Academic Ground

By Jesper B. Sorenson

As the season for political activism quickly approaches, Harvard politicos have been warming up with a debate over Winthrop Professor of History Stephan Thernstrom and charges of his "racial insensitivity." The discussion has centered around whether Thernstrom's remarks are protected by the principle of academic freedom. But students and faculty have inexplicably failed to discuss the case's most important point: what it says about student-faculty relations in the Harvard community.

Charges of racial insensitivity were brought against Professor Thernstrom by a group of students in Historical Studies A-25, which he co-taught with University Professor Bernard Bailyn. The students claim that certain comments made by Thernstrom during his lectures were offensive to minorities, particularly Blacks.

The students took their complaints directly to the Committee on Race Relations, which will not release details of the charges until a decision has been reached. In fact, very little substantive information has come to light concerning the nature or context of Thernstrom's remarks. The debate is therefore taking place entirely on the basis of a few comments by other students--and lots of innuendo.

That the students have not talked to Thernstrom, and that he still has not been told the exact nature of the charges, are some of the most deplorable aspects of the whole controversy. It reveals one of the fundamental problems which the Harvard community faces: the growing distance between faculty and the student body. The breakdown of communication between the two affects all aspects of Harvard life, ranging from the Houses--as students are well aware--to the tone of academic discourse on campus.

CAMILLE Holmes, president of the Black Students Association, is quoted in The Perspective as saying, "I don't think that the people who filed the complaint saw any other avenue." Why was direct contact with Thernstrom the road not travelled by? Why didn't the students talk to him first? The serious nature of any charge of racism (or even of "racial insensitivity") makes it imperative that these charges are not simply the product of a lack of communication. Professors and students both have to make an effort to understand each other.

A recently released report by an accreditation committee from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges came to the conclusion that while Harvard has a very talented faculty and a gifted student body, both live in different worlds. "Faculty members," the report concludes, "are less accessible to students than we expected and less aware than they ought to be of what is occurring outside their department."

These conclusions hardly come as a surprise to most people on campus--faculty and students alike. While the accreditation panel's focus was on student-faculty interaction and the quality of undergraduate education, it is clear that a form of segregation with more far-reaching consequences is developing. A lack of communication between students and their professors not only affects the quality of education, but also the functioning of the Harvard community as a whole.

BOTH The Salient and The Perspective--as far apart ideologically as you can get at Harvard--have defended Thernstrom in the name of academic freedom. Fruitful debate in the academic community depends on the right to express controversial theories. Nobody disagrees with this. What there is contention over--especially in the Thernstrom case--is how to define the limits of this freedom.

Here, the question of academic freedom centers around the right of an intellectual to present the views of others, even though they may be controversial and even offensive. This is Thernstrom's line of defense: he was simply discussing other historians' ideas.

But when students and faculty fail to communicate, they can arrive at different definitions of academic freedom--as has happened in this case. Comments which Thernstrom and his supporters find justifiable are absolutely out of bounds in the eyes of some students. For them, Thernstrom's appeal to academic freedom is nothing more than a sham which avoids the more important issue of race relations on campus.

Race relations or not, the Thernstrom case still contains a threat to academic freedom. However Thernstrom is not the victim of a witch-hunt by crusading students, as The Salient would have it. Rather, the problem lies in the breakdown of communication between students and faculty, which prevents the community from coming to a common understanding of what can and cannot be accepted in academic discourse.

Such a consensus is essential if Harvard is to function effectively as an academic community. Many theories are controversial or offensive but are accepted for debate in academic circles because they live up to common intellectual standards of validity. Yet there is no absolute standard that ideas must adhere to. While it is correct to display displeasure with certain theories, it must be proved that their offensiveness outweighs any claims to academic validity they may have.

Instead of running straight to a committee, students need to talk to their professors and get a sense of the standards the academic community sets for its members. Professors also need to make an effort to talk with their students--just by going to sections, for example--so they can get an idea of what they find outside the bounds of academic discourse.

Administrators, faculty and students must give serious attention to improving faculty-student interaction. In recent years, there has been much empty talk about the declining state of student faculty relations but no true appreciation of what a breakdown in communication does to the Harvard community. The Thernstrom controversy has shown what can happen. If Harvard becomes a school where education is synonomous with dry lectures by remote professors, we may not see the last of "racial insensitivity."

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