Simple-minded flag waving undermines free thinking

Recently I noticed that, for the first time in my 37 years of teaching at USF, our classrooms are draped with flags. I wondered if it was a celebration or the commemoration of a death. Then I read about a legislator from Ocala who wants to protect our students from professors whose ideas he considers dangerous, and I wondered if the first act was related to the second.

It turns out, according to Representative Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), “Our universities are bastions of liberal thought,” and he would like to reign in professors and control what they espouse in the classroom. He believes that professors at USF and other Florida universities exclude “conservative” viewpoints and expand their students’ horizons with “liberal” ideas. At the risk of being labeled a liberal and being subjected to the wrath of Rep. Baxley, one has to question his intentions.

Since one of the courses we teach in our department is called “Mathematics for Liberal Arts,” and being a trained mathematician, I decided to look up the definitions of liberal and conservative. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “conservative” is defined as “tending to preserve established traditions and to resist or oppose any changes in these.” Liberal is defined as “tolerant of views differing from one’s own; broad-minded; progressive; favoring reforms tending toward democracy and personal freedom for the individual.”

These definitions beg the question: Should a university be a hub where established traditions, knowledge and the conservative party line are drilled into the young men and women who come seeking an education? Or should a university provide the means of acquiring knowledge and train students to be broad-minded, inquisitive and creatively strive for goals that go beyond existing traditions and knowledge?

History is replete with examples where tradition has resisted and suppressed progress. If it weren’t for those liberals who dared to challenge the status quo, humans would still be living in caves using their fingers and toes to count, filled with fear of the ruling class and believing that the Earth is flat.

One of the earlier free thinkers, Plato (429–348 B.C.), established one of the most celebrated schools in Athens, the Academy of Plato. The Academy that was the intellectual center of Greece for over 800 years and became a model for our Western universities. Then came Emperor Justinian, who believed that the Academy did not conform to Church doctrine in its teaching and learning, and proceeded to shut it down. Of course, that was the Byzantine Empire. Can it happen in America?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, progress in science challenged the prevailing beliefs of the church. During this period Copernicus advanced his theory that the sun was the center of our solar system and that the Earth revolved around the sun. This contradicted the teachings of the Church. When Galileo took the liberal position and promoted the Copernican theory, he was brought before the Inquisition, found guilty and condemned to lifelong imprisonment. It was not until Oct. 31, 1992 — a mere 350 years later — that Pope John Paul II admitted the Church made an error in the case of Galileo.

In Germany under Hitler, first came the Nazi flags, then came the brown shirts, followed by the burning of books. Dissent and nonconformist viewpoints were squashed and those who disagreed with the prevailing master plan were eliminated. With the country under his control, Hitler proceeded to promote “purity of race,” targeting Jews and other so-called undesirables for extermination. Of course, that was Germany. Fortunately, we live in America.

Communism entered the world stage with fanfare. In places such as the Soviet Union, China and Cuba flags were seen everywhere. Flags ushered in the death of personal freedom. Freedom of speech was no longer free. Academians and freethinking people were reigned in and what was taught in universities went under government control. Their flags were draped over the coffins of personal freedoms.

Now, for the liberal professors who pollute the halls of academia with dangerous ideas such as saving the environment from polluters or protecting the less fortunate or spreading peace throughout the world, I say be thankful that you didn’t live in the Soviet Union, where you would have been banished to Siberia, or Nazi Germany, where your fate would have been sealed in the gas chambers.

As for me, I hope that our administrators do not forward this letter to Rep. Baxley, the savior of our children. However, in case this article does not go unnoticed, my friends who dare can write me at my seaside tropical resort at Guantanamo.

Manoug Manougian, Ph.D.Professor, Departmentof Mathematics.