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Blowing up the Pentagon

By Jeremy Reynalds
web posted October 1, 2001

I've been getting coffee regularly for a couple of years at the Starbucks located at Los Angeles International Airport. And there's always been a line; how long depends on the time of day; nevertheless there's always a line. But not Monday. The two Starbucks baristas on duty looked bored. "Quiet?" I asked one. "Yeh, really quiet. Since the terrorist attack. It's sad."

Trying to make some light conversation I commented, "You know, it's safer than ever to fly now..." "Oh, I don't know," the barista replied a little skeptically. "I don't know."

I made my way up to the gate to check in and after doing so sat down. After finishing the latte (grande breve extra foamy for any of you who may be interested) I looked around the section of the airport in which I was located.There were scarcely 20 people. A cowardly terrorist attack just two weeks ago had succeeded in turning the once bustling LAX into a shadow of its former self.

My adopted American homeland is a different place today from what it was a couple of weeks ago. Even my wife, the most rational sensible and down-to-earth person on whom you could ever set eyes, says she can't see a jet anymore without mentally visualizing the terrible video footage showing the planes crashing into the World Trade Center.

But we'll make it, as will most other Americans, and we'll come out stronger. While my entire family has always been strongly patriotic, the experiences of the last couple of weeks have served as a reminder that we often take our wonderful country for granted.

While I know many are praying right along with us, I know there are some people who hold a different philosophy of life. Apparently one of them is University of New Mexico tenured history professor Richard Berthold, who told a history class he teaches that "Anyone who can blow up the Pentagon has my vote." Admittedly Berthold, who has a long history at UNM as being somewhat of a colorful eccentric, did apologize, saying in a telephone interview to the Albuquerque Journal that his statement was "inexcusable ... I am sorry for acting like a complete and utter jerk. No, I'm certainly not applauding the slaughter of thousands of innocent people."

Now although a UNM Regent, two New Mexico state legislators and a former UNM student would like to see Berthold fired, the history professor's contrition doesn't extend quite that far. He apparently told local media that any attempt to fire him would amount to "a slippery slope to get on when it comes to academic freedom and expression." A written statement from UNM President William Gordon which was printed in local media recently said that Berthold's comment was "irresponsible and deeply offensive." And the university last week has announced that it does plan to discipline Gordon in some manner, although the exact nature of that discipline is still being reviewed.

However, Gordon has pointed out that the consequence of the university being a place that fosters the free exchange of ideas is that "sometimes people will say things that are outrageous, disrespectful and hateful."

However, I see a problem right there: "The free exchange of ideas." Whose ideas? Berthold's ideas? One student's ideas? Everyone's ideas?" A so-called free exchange of ideas sounds more like a graduate level seminar than an undergraduate level lecture by Berthold. In other words, such an exchange should be a dialogue rather than a diatribe.

In graduate seminars I have experienced both at UNM and my current university, professors who are really engaging in the free exchange of ideas have bought up controversial subjects in a manner designed to encourage even the most intimidated student to participate in the discussion. that's free exchange of ideas.

However, it seems that a number of professors at UNM and a number of other state universities really want nothing more than to indoctrinate impressionable students and to foist an agenda--their agenda--on them and yet cloak it in the blanket of protected First Amendment
speech.

I recall one professor during my graduate days at UNM snidely denigrating literature written by "dead white males." This lady didn't want to foster any sort of open academic discussion and free exchange of ideas unless those ideas agreed with hers. If she had, she would have bought up the term "dead white males" as a question to initiate round table discussion and not as a conclusion. For example, she could have said "A lot of people are glad the academic climate is changing and we're reading more diverse literature than just that genre written by authors thought of by some as ‘dead white males.' Now I've got my opinions but I want to know what you think."

There's a huge difference in those two methods of presentation. Dare I say that one is and should always be protected speech and the other when articulated in a university classroom should be grounds for possible disciplinary action up to and including suspension and termination? We need to continue our cherished freedom of protected speech and the free exchange of ideas in university classrooms. However, if we're to do that, it needs to be for everyone; including Christians and conservatives. Many times at institutions like UNM, it's conservatives who get the short end of the stick and people like Berthold who get a free ride. Thankfully that doesn't appear to be the case this time.

So let's openly dialogue in the classroom but stay away from the diatribe. And let's remember that while Berthold is getting all of the attention this week, he's not the only guilty party at UNM. Berthold's totally inappropriate remark reflects just the tip of the academic iceberg at UNM, an institution which while employing many wonderful patriotic faculty who are dedicated to their student's growth and intellectual advancement is also home to a number of bizarre academics with outlandish ideas whose philosophies would never get a hearing outside the walls of the university. The problem is that many of their bizarre philosophies should never get a hearing inside the walls of UNM.

Jeremy Reynalds is a freelance writer and the founder and director of Joy Junction, New Mexico's largest emergency homeless shelter. He has a master's degree in communication from the University of New Mexico and is pursuing his PhD in intercultural education at Biola University in Los Angeles. He is married with five children and lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His work can be viewed here and weekly at www.americasvoices.org. He may be contacted by e-mail at reynalds@joyjunction.org.

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