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Academic Freedom - the Bertrand Russell case

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posted on Aug, 28 2004 @ 12:37 PM
In this thread I'm going to write a bit about a case in American history where academic freedom was violated gravely. This thread is based on this text, although I have it in a book:

How Bertrand Russell was prevented from teaching at the college of the city of New York (PDF)

Bertrand Russell was one of the great philosophers of the 20th century. He had two sides: the mathematician dealing with logic and set theory and a popular author of essays about a large number of subjects. He got a Nobel Prize of literature for the latter. Bertrand Russell was an atheist and had a view of marriage and sex that is pretty normal today. Divorce should be possible with consent from both parties. Premarital sex was no problem for him, as long as it was done safely and no unwanted children were the result. Children should not be lied to about sex. He also thought the current idea about adultery should be rethought, because they were not promoting happiness.

His views were respected and sometimes accepted in the academic world. However, the uneducated masses of 1940 didn't like his views. This got him into a lot of trouble.

Russell was hired to become a teacher of the philosophy of mathematics at the college of the city of New York. He taught the following classes

  • Philosophy 13: A study of modern concepts of logic and of its relation to science, mathematics, and philosophy.
  • Philosophy 24B: A study of the problems in the foundations of mathematics.
  • Philosophy 27: The relations of pure to applied sciences and the reciprocal
    influence of metaphysics and scientific theories.

When Russell’s appointment was made public, Bishop Manning of the Protestant Episcopal Church wrote a letter to all New York newspapers in which he denounced the board’s action. “What is to be said of colleges and universities,” he wrote, “which hold up before our youth as a responsible teacher of philosophy . . . a man who is a recognized propagandist against both religion and morality, and who specifically defends adultery. . . . Can anyone who cares for the welfare of our country be willing to see such teaching disseminated with the countenance of our colleges and universities?”

And so the attacks on Russell started. This one is pretty polite. He was called a 'dog', a 'bum', a 'communist' and a 'fascist' later on. Some people didn't like his views and misrepresented his views to the general public. He was said to promote adultery, rape, public nudity and homosexualism. Anyone that has read his work knows this is not true. But even if it was so, he was not teaching those opinions. He was teaching the philosophy of mathematics.

Because the board of education stood by its decision, his opponents went the court. Both the board and Russell were not allowed to defend themselves. The judge McGeehan decided that Russell was to be fired from the college and that the board members that stood by him were to be replaced by more moral people. The decision was not legal and misrepresented Russell's views. You can read the entire text of the court decision in the PDF file.

The academic world was outraged and from this outrage comes for example Einstein's famous text:

“Great spirits,” Einstein remarked, “have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices and courageously uses his intelligence.”

All attempts to reverse the decision were stopped by judge McGeehan and the mayor of New York. Russell was fired and the board members replaced. His courses were scrapped from the lesson program and he was forbidden to ever teach at the college again:

It was not enough, however, to strike the appropriation for Russell’s lectureship from the budget. Every avenue had to be closed. To make sure that Russell could not be appointed to some other position, Borough President Lyons introduced a resolution at the meeting of the Board of Estimate which was made part of the terms and conditions of the next budget. “No funds herein appropriated,” the resolution said, “shall be used for the employment of Bertrand Russell.”

This case shows what can happen when academic freedom is violated. People with different opinions are stopped from teaching, just because the majority doesn't like the way it thinks the person's opinions are. Progress comes from discussion and a conflict between different opinions, not by suppressing them. But this was exactly what happened. Let this case be a warning for the future, especially at the moment when politics become more and more involved in education. Let this be a warning.

posted on Aug, 28 2004 @ 12:46 PM
Wow! Excellent article, and thank you SO much for taking the time to research this!

(serious question... have you considered writing for publication (money)... if not, I urge you to consider it.)


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