Intellectual freedom and its new enemies

BUDAPEST – The World War I exhibit at the House of European History in Brussels offers visitors an arresting sight. In a simple yet dramatic gesture, the museum has placed the pistol used in the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a glass-paneled cabinet right in the center of the room.

The tour guide informed our group that, following much heated debate, the museum had agreed to change the objects on display from time to time, so that different countries could exhibit their most precious historical relics. But when I peevishly remarked that the pistol Gavrilo Princip used in Sarajevo is irreplaceable, the curator replied that four European museums claim to have the authentic pistol on display.

As much as I respect and defend the plurality of European national traditions, only one pistol, not four, triggered the outbreak of World War I. We cannot be “pluralistic” and “inclusive” when historical facts dictate a single right answer to a question. And such questions must be decided by experts who have been rigorously educated in the history (and trained in the historical sources) of a given era, not by those with a political agenda.

Such a view may seem like common sense. But scientists, their institutions, and the legitimacy of scientific knowledge itself are under increasing threat in several European countries. Freely elected governments have recently blocked financial support for research projects with no official explanation (Bulgaria), removed educational programs from the list of accredited university subjects (Hungary), and even eliminated entire disciplines (Poland).

These governments are disregarding centuries-old university traditions that were respected even during the communist era. But the powers behind such decisions are not interested in establishing historical or scientific facts. And they are ready to criticize, ridicule, or even threaten those who have already acquired such knowledge, or wish to do so.

We should reject the notion that the instigators of these attacks are ignorant and uneducated, and do not respect knowledge. Senior members of the Hungarian government that forced the Central European University, founded by the financier George Soros, to move to Vienna, and banned gender studies, had previously received scholarships from Soros’s Open Society Foundation to study in Oxford, New York, and elsewhere. These are highly educated people who know that knowledge is power, have a clear agenda, and are taking advantage of the fact that education in the European Union is the responsibility of national governments, not Brussels-based institutions.

These governments want to establish an educational system according to which the state alone decides which fields of research are necessary and socially important. In the long run, they probably also want the state to grant political loyalists the right to produce and transfer knowledge.

In other words, access to knowledge will cease to be a civil right. Political trustworthiness will determine who can teach and study what about a country and its past. This would mean the de-democratization of higher education and of science in general and putting “experts” in the service of broader anti-democratic goals. To prevent the latter, we must resist the former.

Democratic science policies build on the principle that access to science is a human right. Furthermore, they assume correctly that the knowledge produced through a democratic spirit of inquiry is of higher quality than that produced by someone who became an “expert” through political connections.

Many questions in the social sciences and humanities have straightforward answers. Ultimately, we should accept the verdicts of experts who have devoted their careers to a particular issue, and not those with political axes to grind.

We must, therefore, fight the disturbing trend of European governments giving themselves the right to decide scientific questions, and appointing loyal supporters to act as arbiters of truth. And we should question whether the new, ideologically-based governmental research institutes and universities in some of these countries have a rightful place in the network of European universities and research institutions.

Social scientists and other academics across ex-communist Europe are once again working in an increasingly oppressive intellectual climate. It must not be up to them alone to defend the democratic quest for knowledge against those who would decide by government decree which pistol was fired in Sarajevo.

The writer is a professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In 2018, she was awarded the All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values.

Copyright: Project Syndicate.