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Sputnik: Sattelite Hysteria and Moonstruck USA | The Nation

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Sputnik: Sattelite Hysteria and Moonstruck USA

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A little Russian satellite beeping in space causes mass hysteria on the ground.

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One of the more thought-provoking aspects of the news that came out of Oxford, Mississippi, before and during James Meredith's registration at the University of Mississippi, was the reported attitude of the faculty towards the crisis on its campus. According to at least two widely reprinted newspaper stories written shortly after Meredith's registration, not one faculty member at the University of Mississippi spoke out endorsing integration or advocating compliance with the federal court order to admit Meredith either before or during the violence that accompanied his registration. The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), however, did issue a belated statement defending the conduct of U. S. marshals in their execution of orders.

That an entire 200-man faculty of a respected state university should have found it wise, expedient or necessary to maintain silence in a situation intimately and violently affecting its own campus, its own students, and the whole structure of constitutional government in its state, is both curious and disturbing. It is impossible to believe that all of these men, educated in a variety of disciplines, could have been indifferent to the struggle going on in front of their office doors. One wonders about student interpretation of the faculty silence.

Writing this 1,500 miles away from Oxford, I do not presume to judge the faculty or its lack of action. But I suggest that its conduct during the Meredith crisis, and the attention that conduct received, constitute material for some interesting academic meditation. What is expected of professors and teachers in the way of public commitment in time of crisis? Does it make any, difference if the crisis is on the campus and involves student riots and death? What role do learning and historical awareness play in time of public conflict? Does learning entail responsibility? A few years ago, it was commonplace to hear in faculty lounges that German professors and intellectuals shared a great guilt for not speaking out during Hitler's rise to power. "They failed to keep the beacon light of freedom and right burning during the night of tyranny," William L. Shirer quoted Julius Ebbinghaus. Do we expect our professors to keep lights of freedom and right burning? How do they go about it? Was it done in Mississippi?

Some of the public reaction to the faculty silence in Mississippi is an interesting commentary on these questions. During the week of Meredith's registration, the Louisville Times, under a three-column headline on page one, ran a Chicago Daily News Service story from Oxford. Said the headline, "Ole Miss Faculty Would Rather Eat Than Speak." The story included accounts of interviews with two faculty members, both of whom chose to remain anonymous. One was quoted as saying his job depended on silence in this situation. The other was quoted as saying that there was freedom of speech at the university all right, but that freedom did not give anyone the right to yell fire in a crowded theatre. It was not clear from the news story just how this analogy was to be applied.

A few weeks later, a Jesuit correspondent for America. wrote from Louisiana that he thought the University of Mississippi was in for a time of soul searching, and he observed, "Professors of the university, unwilling to jeopardize their jobs, if not more, had tallied up few points for heroism . . . ."

On the other hand, the faculty silence met with, approval and even commendation in some circles the Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, J. D. Williams, reportedly "congratulated and commended" his faculty on their conduct during the crisis, Also, some outside organizations publicly complimented the faculty. The Minnesota Chapter of the AAUP, for example, sent the Mississippi faculty "an official letter saying:

The Council of the Minnesota Conference, AAUP, wishes to commend the faculty of the University of Mississippi for their fine sense of responsibility shown by accepting James Meredith in their classes and offering to him the same educational opportunity as that offered to other students.

Privately, Minnesota AAUP leaders explained that of all groups involved in the Mississippi struggle—students, townspeople, administrators, politicians, faculty—the faculty acted with the most restraint and thus won its laurels by default.

Clearly, there are several ways of looking at the faculty conduct in this matter. It seems to me that some public discussion of a faculty's proper role and responsibility in time of crisis is now needed.

Historically, there is considerable justification for the silence of the faculty during crisis on the campus. Our society has almost always been more comfortable when the professor lectures only in the classroom, a fact that some have interpreted as a further evidence of national anti-intellectualism. In 1956, Howard Mumford Jones summed up the historical reality in a speech on "The Service of the University," delivered before a University of North Dakota audience:

. . . In point of law, the American professor is nothing more than the hired employee of a corporate body over which he has no control. . .

In law . . . the university as an autonomous congregation of scholars engaged in the discovery, preservation, and inculcation of truth does not exist. All that exists is a board of trustees or regents charged with the duty of hiring persons by contract to do certain acts . . . The American concept is in no way (except as afterthought) the concept of a congregation of scholars engaged in discovering and preserving truth; it is, instead, the concept of an arm of the state intended to get things done or authorizing other persons to hire certain persons to get things done.

Viewed from this perspective, the university professor has a responsibility not to concern himself with campus conflicts unless he is specifically hired to do so. The professor has no more right or responsibility to speak out than the cook in the cafeteria or the man who blows up the basketballs.

Artistically, there is a growing body of commentary on the existential reality in the American university that would tend to explain faculty silence psychologically rather than legally. Practically every one of the dozen or so academic novels published in the past few years pictures the university faculty as made up of persons interested in anything but "the light of freedom and right." Indeed, if we accept the novelists' picture of academic life in America, we would conclude not only that administrators expect silence from professors, but that professors who were brave enough to disobey and speak out would have nothing to say any more. "Teaching is a noble profession with a noble history," says Gabe in Philip Roth's Letting Go. "And it may simply be that we are living through a slack time."

Perhaps the best illustration for our present purpose would be the exchange in Malamud's A New Life, in which the veteran professor Gilley introduces the new English instructor Levin to the practical realities. "We don't pretend we're anything more than a typical American state college," said Gilley. "The atmosphere is relaxed . . . There are no geniuses around to make you uncomfortable. . . . We don't ask more than that a man does his work conscientiously -- his share of it. What we don't want around are troublemakers." And Gilley's point is emphasized by the recounting of the experiences of a previous instructor who had interested himself in social causes, was branded a "radical," publicly fired and eventually committed suicide.

Almost every character in the contemporary academic novel—from those by Malamud and Stringfellow Barr to those by Mary McCarthy and Carlos Baker and Philip Roth—would rather eat than speak. Perhaps it is important that no champion of faculty honor has yet arisen to set these carping artists straight. Perhaps in Mississippi we encountered another case of life imitating art.

Intellectually, American professors have little difficulty justifying silence in times of trouble. Comments by academicians often contain straightforward statements to the effect that it is foolish to jeopardize the payments on the house, or the comfortable middle-class routine, or the daughter's promising flute lessons, by becoming involved in the struggles in the community or by attempting publicly to apply historical wisdom to contemporary problems. Oscar Mandel, for example, in the Virginia Quarterly Review a few years ago wrote an essay which tended, generally, to discourage action by the cultured man; it can be used as a kind of instant rationalization by any professor who would rather eat than speak.

Similar advice appears regularly in scholarly journals—a recent essay by the University of Louisville's Earl Rovit in the AAUP Bulletin, for example, carried the same message. The days of the idealistically motivated professor seem gone.

I suspect that it was an awareness of this attitude of expedient withdrawal that prompted the president of the New York City Central Labor Council a year or so ago to beg the intellectual to rejoin forces with organized labor. There is no record, though, that the intellectual responded to the invitation.

Yet with all of this explanation and hard-headed justification, there is still some gnawing notion, perhaps buried in our romantic cultural subconscious, that the responsibility to speak clearly and sanely in time of violence and crisis is a responsibility that goes along with the advantages of learning. There is also a kind of folk notion, perhaps implied in the Louisville Times headline and in the comment from the Jesuit in Louisiana, that a teacher ought to be just a bit more conscious of principle than other men. We need to talk about these things. I think it would be most unwise if we were to treat with silence the faculty silence in Mississippi.

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