I had a professor in college who reminded us often that “there are no new ideas.” He was a Shakespearean scholar talking about literary themes, but he was right on so many levels. The big questions don’t change much – the answers evolve and the circumstances morph, but we are still contemplating the same expansive questions, making the same big mistakes.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised this week when I read about infringements on academic freedom, complete with feminist backsliding and new attempts to marginalize young women and the poor. But I was surprised. I was surprised to learn that a school like North Dakota State, a “land grant, student focused, research university” would bow to illogical political pressure and freeze its faculty’s research funding. I am surprised that university administrators are willing to sacrifice evidence-based science and the time-honored practice of peer reviewed research for the sake of political favors and false morality tales. I’m surprised that the politics of abortion and blatant religious conservatism can invade the hallowed halls of academic freedom and scientific method. I am, however, not surprised that NDSU officials are hiding behind legal jargon and oblique references to thirty year-old laws, instead of admitting to the political and financial realities of the situation.
On January 15 NDSU President Dean Bresciani “blocked” a $1.2 million dollar US Department of Health and Human Service grant awarded to two NDSU professors. Doctor Brandy Randall and Doctor Molly Secor-Turner were awarded the competitive grant to launch a program bringing comprehensive sex education to over 400 teens in the Fargo area. According to NDSU’s press release the program targets some of the state’s most vulnerable teens – those who are homeless, in foster care, or in the juvenile justice system. And teens would enter the program voluntarily with the written consent of their guardians. This educational curriculum was to be delivered outside of the public school and included discussions about abstinence and healthy relationships, as well as “medically accurate” reproductive information. But – and here is the real issue for several of North Dakota’s misguided state legislators – while the NDSU professors would be analyzing the program’s data, Planned Parenthood was set to run the program.
Opposition to Plan Parenthood might be fueled by the abortion debate, but the controversy in Fargo points to something more basic. For centuries we have understood that knowledge and information often translate into freedom. This understanding has led to the most of rudimentary of oppressive strategies: without an accurate and free flow of information it’s easy to control public opinion. In truth, many of us are afraid. We are afraid that if the young and undereducated are brought up to speed, our own unexamined moral absolutes might be challenged.
And so it is the same old story. The unwinnable battle to legislate morality and keep knowledge out of the hands of those who need it the most. Never mind the fact that Planned Parenthood does not provide abortions – or any other medical procedures – in North Dakota. Never mind that we fought these battles in the 1970s, that in theory we moved beyond the notion that women are somehow held hostage by our bodies. We can sexualize every aspect of our consumer culture and then pretend that no one is having sex. We can use sex to exploit young people in the marketplace and in the media but we can’t have an honest conversation about the realities of a healthy – and yes: active – sex life. It is backwards, but it is an old story.
30 January 2013 update: A video and news story about yesterday’s “rally” in Fargo: NDSU Faculty Protest Freezing of Sex-ed Program Funds