Academic Freedom

(See also other articles in the Freedom category.)

Yesterday (March 24, 2016) was the first day of the sixth Models and Groups Istanbul meeting. There were participants from the Middle East, Europe, and America. Kıvanç Ersoy was to speak about his own mathematics. He could not speak, because he was in prison. He, Esra Mungan, and Muzaffer Kaya were in prison, because the three of them had publicly insisted that the government of Turkey make peace in the southeast of the country. Absurd, but true.

Instead of Kıvanç yesterday, others spoke about him and Esra and Muzaffer. Speakers included Esra’s husband, Muzaffer’s wife, and Kıvanç’s mathematical colleagues, along with his father and sister. Kıvanç’s mother was also present. It was a moving event.

One speaker had been among the thousand academics who condemned the military government after the coup of September 12, 1980. Today a thousand academics have put their names on a demand for peace in the country. Esra, Kıvanç, and Muzaffer have only been the most insistent among these thousand: they recently reiterated their demand in a press conference. It was observed yesterday that repression of dissident academics under the formally elected government of 2016 is worse than it was under the military regime of 1980.

This is all very sad and depressing, whether for somebody who was born here in Turkey, or for somebody who, like me, has made it his home for the last fifteen years. Today’s thousand dissenting academics, among whom is my wife: should they recant their statements and hope for mercy?

It is important to resist the state’s attempts to control and suppress dissenting expressions and thoughts. One need not agree with a petition for peace in order to believe that citizens must be free to issue such a petition. It is equally important to say why one believes this. I try here to say why, in hopes that others will do the same.

The Canadian Philosophical Association argues that academic freedom is not a gift in return for the teaching and research performed by university employees. Freedom is essential for these activities to happen in the first place. (See my previous article.)

One may say that it is not the job of a mathematician, for example, to judge the activities of the state against rebels, particularly rebels who employ terrorism. The mathematician must be free to pursue mathematics, yes; but criticizing the state is no part of mathematics.

One may say such things; but then I have two responses.

1. It is indeed not the job of the mathematician as such to question the authority of the state. It is everybody’s job. In the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, all of us are created equal, and we are endowed with unalienable rights, and

to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

2. The mathematician, or any academic, is not a craftsperson whom one hires to perform a specific task that one can already identify for oneself. If you have a leaky pipe, and you cannot fix it yourself, you call a plumber. You may not know how to do the plumber’s work, but you know what you want them to do, and you can tell when the work is done. The pipe must be made sound, and you know what that means.

The mathematician may be hired to give a sound understanding of calculus to students of engineering; but this soundness is not like the soundness of a pipe. Students are not inert material that can be formed according to somebody else’s desires. For one thing, students must want to learn; and teachers must want to teach.

Even a well-established subject like calculus requires creativity, which in turn requires freedom of thought. Learning the subject means learning to face problems that one has never faced before. One needs confidence to face new problems. Part of this confidence is a willingness to try out new ideas, to see where they lead.

This is another point of the Canadian Philosophical Association. If one can be punished for having certain ideas, then one will learn to be wary of letting one’s mind roam freely. One will be unlikely to discover anything new; or if one does, one will not share it.

And yet the whole raison d’être of the university is to discover and share new ideas. Even in calculus class. In this connection, I am fond of some words of the physicist Richard Feynman, a winner of the Nobel Prize. I think Feynman’s words apply to mathematics as well. New ideas can come from the questions of students—who must therefore feel free to ask the questions, and we must also listen to them, as politicians must listen to their constituents.

I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I’m making some contribution—it’s just psychological.

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get an idea for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any new ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come.

Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the longer periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say I’m teaching my class.

If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn’t do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can’t think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

So I find that teaching and the students keep life going…

Thus Feynman, from the beginning of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character (New York: Norton, 1985). It would be good to know what members of the Institute for Advanced Study have to say about their job. I think Feynman’s general point is sound: the academic must be open to new ideas, wherever they may come from.

It is possible to do great work in one area, such as mathematics, in a country where work in other areas is tightly controlled. The Soviet Union is an example. But this was a place that many of the best minds wanted to leave.

It was observed yesterday that our colleague Kıvanç has mathematical collaborators on four continents. He can do a certain amount of work by himself in prison. But ultimately he is going to have to be free. His family, his son, his collaborators, colleagues, and students are being denied his contribution to our lives.

Meanwhile, arrested members of Daesh in Turkey were set free yesterday.

The detained peaceniks were ultimately released too, to await a new trial in September—and here the judge issued a three-month postponement. See also “An Indictment.” On January 9, 2019, I added before the Feynman quote the remark that begins, “New ideas can come from the questions of students …”

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