Last night on the campus of Bloomsburg University, a young philosophy prof named Kurt Smith debated conservative activist David Horowitz on the topic of academic freedom. I’ve been scanning for reports on the showdown. Nothing yet. But Horowitz performs dozens of these showdowns, so it’s hardly front-page news.
What’s this got to do with public relations? Plenty.
You see, Horowitz and his supporters are on a campaign that would, in effect, regulate much of what’s taught in America’s classrooms. His project, dubbed the Academic Bill of Rights, grows out of two illogical assumptions: 1) that professors and students have equal footing in the classroom, and 2) that any knowledge or “truth” presented in that classroom is open to challenge and debate by students and the public.
In the new issue of Academe, Professor Smith puts those assumptions to a test of logic that only a philosopher could devise. In the end, both Horowitz assumptions fail. His article is titled “What happens when you apply the standards of logic to an illogical argument?”
The debate is playing out around the nation. In Ohio, where I live, the education system remains under siege by the promoters of intelligent design, despite the decision by the U.S. District Court in the Dover, Pa. case. But in Ohio, the folks who want to put the Book of Genesis into the classroom have added a few more issues: global warming, cloning and stem cell research. The political agenda becomes clearer and clearer, and the absence of logic more and more evident.
As a PR professional, I’m perplexed, and frankly a little scared of this whole phenomenon. How do we, as professional communicators, help our clients cope with opposition that is so clearly outside the framework of reason and common sense? How do we help our clients find a reasonable yet strategic position on these issues without subjecting them to attacks, boycotts and other retribution?
The simple answer is to take NO position in such debates. But doesn’t that require us to shirk our duty to stand up for ethics and social responsibility? Does not that duty call for the courage to counsel management to take the high road? (OK, I’ve been out of day-to-day practice for a while, so this likely sounds idealistic.)
As a card-carrying moderate, I recognize the pressure comes from both sides of the aisle. Some fringe environmental groups, clearly on the left, would have us stop development, cease cutting timber and abolish the use of nonrenewable fuels (I like the last one, but give it time). Extremists in the animal rights movement would like a world that puts all animals on par with humans — even when use of those animals would contribute extensively and directly to saving people’s lives, or when overpopulation of those animals conflicts with the health of humankind.
Like everything else I’ve posted on this blog, I present way more questions than answers. But I’m assured that if I hang in there and keep posting the conversations will come.
If nothing else, maybe Horowitz will nominate me to his list of the most dangerous professors in America. I’d be honored.