Galileo in the Ivory Tower: Gilmour, the Oxfordians, and Academic Freedom of Speech

In 1633, Galileo Galilei was an old man. Accused by the Catholic Church of heresy, he was brought into the depths of a dungeon and shown instruments of torture that would be used against him if he did not recant his theory that the Earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa.  The most powerful single organization in Europe at the time had to resort to violence against an academic in order to reassert a cosmological position that affirmed its place as the centre of worldly power.

That is the exemplar case that has been used for generations to justify academic freedom of speech. Academics can say what they want and if other people are offended, if other people take exception, if other people don’t believe them, then so be it. Academics must be allowed speak the truth to power. Without that, there is no debate, progress, or hope for the future. We need to be able to question – everything!

Before going any further, let me affirm that sentiment.  Yes, we must question – everything.  Without questioning our own presuppositions, we are simply mired in the past.

That said, two things have come into the news in the past little bit that complicate this rather simplistic notion of academic freedom.

First is the whole debacle surrounding David Gilmour’s ignorant and self-absorbed comments regarding his own thoughtless teaching practice. (Yes, I’m exposing my bias here.) Thankfully, the press on that has been tremendous and his reputation is (rightfully) tarnished to the state that it is now probably beyond repair. I’d be surprised if Canadian publishing houses will touch him after his racist, sexist, and bizarrely anti-nationalist comments.

For those who haven’t read the first article or any of the follow up statements, here are a few links:

Those who rushed to defend Gilmour (there were a few), claimed the right of academics to speak freely, a right that is predicated on the ability to speak truth to power. They claimed that it is his right to teach what he wants, to say what he wants, because to do otherwise would be to censor him in the name of “political correctness.”  Those who defended him failed to recognize that Gilmour was not speaking truth to power, but was the mouthpiece of power.  He’s not Galileo, he’s the Catholic Church. Instead of taking an old man into a dungeon to witness the instruments of torture, Gilmour has taken dozens of young men and women through a tour of what he sees as his own heterosexual, white male identity.

He embodies power and his teaching practice was a flagrant display of misuse of power.

Now I said that there were two things that made me want to write. The second is the fact that my alma mater, an institution with which I have an ongoing scholarly relationship (heck, I’m a paid researcher for them on a project), is funding a conference that is mooting the Oxfordian Authorship Thesis.  For those who don’t know, that is the idea that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, actually wrote the plays that we attribute to Shakespeare.  The amount of money is negligible in the grand scheme of a university budget, but the fact that it is being funded at all is deeply problematic to me.

I’m not going to rehearse the reasons why the Oxfordian thesis is a load of bullshit the size of a house.  I could – in fact, I have a few books on my shelf right now that go over exactly what we know about Shakespeare and when we knew it.  That material is easily accessible for anyone who is willing to do even a modicum of research.  Whether you are talking about E K Chambers’ Sources for a Biography of Shakespeare (1946), James Shapiro’s Contested Will (2010), the recent book by Stanley Wells, or, hell, even John Aubrey’s “Life of Shakespeare” (1693)… there’s a lot of material out there that contradicts the Oxfordian thesis, so I don’t think I need to go over why it is a load of bollocks. Again, you aren’t speaking truth to power, because there is no truth to speak.  Without positive, corroborating evidence and in the face of a mountain of contradictory material, all you have is a fantasy, not truth.

No, what bothers me is that in both cases you have a misuse of the institutional safeguards that have been put in place to foster intellectual curiosity.  That is, academics are supposed to be able to investigate whatever it is they are curious about without fear of reprisal, whether that reprisal be political (a governing regime doesn’t like what that academic is saying) or otherwise. Supposedly, we have the tenure system to ensure that situations like Galileo won’t happen in the world today.  Of course, that the system is broken in Canada will come as no surprise to anyone.  The Harper government has made it clear that the sciences serve political interests and is willing to un-fund anyone who dares to question conservative doctrine on climate change, crime statistics, even immigration. The cry of some academics is that we need to reinforce the tenure system. Ensure that academics are allowed to speak freely without government interference. Of course, both of these cases, David Gilmour and the Oxfordian conference, have at the heart of them scholars who are not tenured. So what is going on?

What I see is a system which posits all scholars as being in the Galileo mould, no matter what it is they are saying. The system of academic privilege obliges us to value freedom of speech, of course; as far as I’m concerned, there must be Oxfordians out there and more David Gilmours out there. And they should speak up. Please. I’d like to know who you are. Because if we have a system that posits all scholars as being like Galileo, then the Oxfordians and the Gilmours need to hand in their scholarly credentials right now because they don’t speak the truth.  They don’t have an interest in the truth. Gilmour is quite consciously interested in himself and Oxfordians have no interest in qualities of scholarship like rigor, argumentation, evidence.  You know, little critical thinking skills like that.

Again, as I said, at the heart of both issues are individuals without tenure, who are invoking the privileges of academic freedom of speech to do things that are genuinely hurtful.  On the one hand the harm is directed at the students in the classroom, while on the other it is directed at the ways in which the institution creates and evaluates truth claims. These are actually harmful practices. Don’t be mistaken. This has caused harm.  David Gilmour himself – not harmful (to my knowledge). David Gilmour’s teaching practice – harmful to his students insofar as it was myopic and self-absorbed. The Oxfordian Thesis is itself not harmful. Teaching the Oxfordian Thesis or funding a conference on it is the literary equivalent of Creationism. (If you are a Creationist, fine. But you have no place in a university Biology faculty. If you are an Oxfordian, fine. But you have no place in a university Theatre or English faculty.) It is harmful to the institution of education itself because it redefines what counts as evidence, argumentation, and critical thinking.

Galileo recanted upon seeing the instruments of torture, or so the story goes.  His patrons, the Medici, lifted their support of the old man when the pope pressured them to capitulate, and Galileo himself had no choice but to die for cosmology or live and see his family again.  Maybe eat one last good meal.  Have sex. Play a game. Scholars aren’t exactly known for their bodily courage, after all, and Galileo chose to live.  Why mention this as a post-script? Because I think that there is a flaw in any system that tries to take a single, fallible human being and raise him or her to the level of an archetype. If we are all supposed to be Galileo, speaking the truth to power, then we have to make sure that we aren’t the power speaking back (like Gilmour) or that we have abandoned all consideration for the truth (like the Oxfordians), but I’d like to add one more consideration to that equation. If we are all supposed to be like Galileo, when do we capitulate and eat our own words just so we can live?


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