A while ago, Rex posted on Human Events’ list of the “most dangerous books of the 19th & 20th century”. While ideologically frightening, we can be thankful that Human Events doesn’t (yet?) have any sort of enforcement power behind their list-making.
Or do they? A student in Massachusetts was visited by Homeland Security officers after requesting a translation of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book (#3 on Human Events’ list) through interlibrary loan. The student, who was taking a class on fascism and totalitarianism, requested the book as source material for a term paper on Communism; after filling out the form, he was visited at his parent’s home by two DHS agents, who told him the book was on a “watch list”. The content of their visit is, so far, unreported — but whatever was said, the fact of the visit itself is intimidating enough, and the effect on a developing student’s willingness to grapple with complex issues clear enough to imagine.
Just as worrying, though, is the “chilling effect” this visit is already having. Professor Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic Studies at the same school, asked to comment on the student’s case replied with concern over the risks that he and his fellow teachers might be putting their students into. “”I shudder to think of all the students I’ve had monitoring al-Qaeda Web sites, what the government must think of that,” he said, adding that he was reconsidering his plan to offer a course on terrorism next year, as the research required for the class would be bound to attract attention.
This past week we’ve learned that the US government has been rather extensively spying on American citizens associated with the anti-war and related political movements. But while the implications of this sort of monitoring for the expression of political dissent is clear enough, the implications for academic instruction are generally overlooked. While most professors can deal with the ramifications of their work, students are in a much more tenuous position, and if pursuing the demands of an adequate, unexceptional (that is, “normal”, not “mediocre”) education puts them at risk, we’ve got a big problem. Do we follow Dr. William’s example and shield our students from such risks, or do we accept the possibility that instructing our students to engage with the issues that shape their lives — or even allowing them to do so — may well expose them to the monitoring eye of the State, with who-knows-what consequences?
[Link via Joho the Blog]