Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Remembering my father's fight for free speech on campus

My father died of cancer 17 years ago today. A few days later we buried his ashes in a cemetary in Virginia that sits on land that has been in our family since before the American Revolution. The eulogy that I read at his service described a moment in the fight for free speech on American college campuses a long time ago. It is, sadly, more relevant today than when I wrote it back in 1998. I hope you enjoy it.

Remarks at the burial service for John B. Henneman, Jr.

Chellowe Cemetery, July 13, 1998

Our father, whose ashes we bury here today, was – in a most redundant sense – a “unique individual.” He was a political conservative in the most left-wing community the United States has ever indulged – the American university of the last thirty years. He believed that the best music, clothes and hairstyles ever devised were those that were popular on Ivy League campuses in the middle 1950s, but he understood the “current” thinking of college kids better than any of my friends’ fathers. He was not a devoted churchgoer, but he had such strong feelings about the changes in established religion that he banned the current version of the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer from this service. He was a Republican who voted for Richard Nixon twice and he served as an officer in the United States Navy, but he retained a fundamental distrust of big institutions, including both federal regulatory agencies and multinational corporations. He was a wonderful father, husband and son, and he most wished to be remembered as a professor, scholar, medieval historian and librarian.

On this occasion, I wanted to tell a brief and fairly cerebral story about my father that taught me an important lesson, and makes me as proud today as I was at ten years old, when the events in question occurred. Most of you have never heard of these events, or if you have you probably do not appreciate their significance to me.

In February 1972, the University of Iowa Psychology Department invited a Harvard psychologist, Richard Hernnstein, to speak on research he had conducted with pigeons. Professor Hernnstein was controversial, because the previous September he had published an article in the Atlantic Monthly suggesting that social and economic success in the United States might derive in part from measurable intelligence, and that since measurable intelligence was at least to a certain extent inherited, it followed that social and economic success might also be inherited. This position posed a sharp challenge to prevailing orthodox radical thought, so the organized left resolved to oppose Professor Hernnstein wherever he spoke, even when he was addressing totally unrelated matters, such as pigeons.

In the Iowa case, the front organization for the Students for a Democratic Society, the infamous SDS, repeatedly and publicly expressed their intention to prevent Professor Hernnstein from speaking, notwithstanding his formal invitation from the University. True to their threats, the SDS and its allies demonstrated so vocally that Professor Hernnstein was unable to speak and had to cancel his presentation.

The University administration remained basically silent during the days preceding and following the cancellation of Professor Hernnstein’s speech of February 25, refusing to discipline those responsible for the violation of academic freedom and free speech that had occurred. After a week of inaction by the administration, on March 3, 1972, Dad read a statement to his Medieval History class. Excerpts from the statement, and the aftermath of Dad’s decision to cancel a class in protest, I think reveal a lot about our father’s willingness to fight for what is right:
Before you start writing, there is one matter which I feel I must talk to you about, even though you are probably sick of hearing about it. The deliberate and successful attack on academic freedom which occurred here a week ago was the most tragic and upsetting thing which has happened in the three years I have been here. I feel that I can’t continue to perform my duties here without saying or doing something to make public my sorrow and my sense of outrage.

Because there is such pressure for conformity in a large industrial society, a university has to promote diversity more than ever before. But it cannot offer you diversity of opinion or provide anything more than mere indoctrination unless every faculty member has the fully guaranteed right to say what he thinks is the truth, not simply what one political group wants him to say. This right is academic freedom. Without it, I could not remain in this profession and your prospects for a broad and diversified educational experience would be gone ….

I think that neither you nor I can afford to have this issue swept under the rug. As a means of symbolizing my protest at the administration’s failure in this case, I am canceling Monday’s lecture in this course. I hope that you will take a few moments during that hour to reflect on the fact that freedom is very hard to win and very easy to lose.

A firestorm of publicity erupted. Backed into a corner, the administration disciplined the students involved, decertified the SDS front organization, and, for good measure, censured my father for canceling his class.

My clearest direct memory of these events is of a conversation I had with our father as the controversy was playing out in the press. I asked him why he had canceled his class and gotten into trouble with the University (a fairly straightforward question from a ten year old boy). I will always remember his reply: “The right of freedom of speech does not matter for people we all agree with. Freedom of speech only matters for people whose ideas we deplore.” It is a seemingly obvious point that even Americans often forget. For me, those words flash through my mind every time I learn of an attempt to suppress free speech. I cannot help it – it is a piece of Dad that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

As the son of a historian and a librarian, I took it upon myself to review Dad’s voluminous and well-organized files in the preparation of these remarks. Almost a year before, in April 1971, our father had anticipated the entire episode in a letter objecting to a draft Statement on Professional Ethics being circulated by the University of Iowa Faculty Council. The draft Statement asserted that a “professor’s first priority should be to do all in his power to prevent death and injuries due to violence” during periods of high tension on campus. Dad denounced that requirement, writing that:
[w]hen conditions on campus are abnormal, the threat usually involves a demand for scapegoats, as some tried to make ROTC a scapegoat for last year’s Cambodian intervention. It is at these crucial moments that the first obligation of faculty members must be to act rationally and to stand firmly behind any member of the community whose rights are threatened. Standing firm is a difficult matter, since capitulation often appears to be the only way of averting violence. Nevertheless, every time we sacrifice somebody else’s rights in the hope of avoiding bloodshed we are guilty of unethical and unprofessional conduct and make our own rights less secure and less respected.

Dad, we love you and will never forget you. May you rest in peace in the Virginia soil that you loved so very much.

I wish so much that he were able to tell us what he thinks of the free speech debate of our own generation, which perhaps is not quite as new as we think it is. And I hope so much that I am able to teach my own children lessons that they remember for the rest of their lives.


Anonymous said...


"The Hammer" said...

Isn't it interesting that the "Free Speech" movement in the 60's at such place as U-Cal Berkeley and UNC all involved the right of hardcore leftists to politic on campus. Now, NOW that those very same SDS and Weathermen (and their sympathizers) control the academy it's all about controlling free speech as practiced by anyone but leftists.
This didn't just happen. This is pure, unadulterated Stalinism. It's how they subverted Czechoslovakia and Poland after the war (and damn near Greece). Raise hell, make everything dysfunctional until people are dying for a little peace and order, which they're only too happy to provide.
Principled guys like your old man are just about gone now. They were few and far between even when I was in college (back in the Mesozoic Era). Wish I had known him.

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