The Value of Pursuing Truth: A Conversation About Academic Freedom with Professor Ian Morris

Oct 24, 2023 | Interviews

The Value of Pursuing Truth: A Conversation About Academic Freedom with Professor Ian Morris

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Ian Morris is the Jean and Rebecca Willard Professor of Classics at Stanford University.  Professor Morris is also a scholar in the fields of history and archeology. Since earning his Ph.D. from Cambridge University in the mid-1980s, Morris has published over a dozen books on a variety of subjects including war, British history, Western Civilization, and archeology. He has received numerous awards and fellowships from groups like the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Geographic Society among many others. Professor Morris is also a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance.  In this brief interview we were able to discuss the AFA and his thoughts about threats to academic freedom across various disciplines. 

Howard Muncy: As one of the 217 founding members for the AFA’s March 2021 public launch, what inspired you to join the effort and what have you thought about the organization’s activity so far? 

Ian Morris: I joined because the AFA is so strongly committed to defending the pursuit of truth in universities. Academics sometimes seem to forget what a precious thing this is. Anyone who’s written for non-academic readerships or given public lectures will have had the experience of being abused and threatened by people who see few limits on how far they can go to silence ideas they dislike. I’ve certainly had my share of e-mails threatening from characters at every extreme of politics. This is why we need universities where researchers can follow the evidence wherever it seems to lead without fear of punishment. But what alarms me—and what makes the AFA so valuable—is that a “values trump scholarship” attitude seems to be corrupting the institutions that earlier generations of scholars fought so hard to create.

I’m glad to be able to say that my own direct experiences of this corruption have (so far) been mild. When I joined the AFA in March 2021, I’d never yet been canceled, but within months, a senior colleague expelled me from an online conference when I wouldn’t agree that archaeology should serve political ends. But for several years before I joined the AFA, I’d regularly had colleagues tell me that I shouldn’t study certain topics or report where the data seemed to be going if that contradicted their political opinions or ones they thought our students were likely to hold. I’ve heard a senior professor encourage a conference audience to lie on grant applications if they thought the donor organization had the wrong values. Twice I’ve found myself arguing with members of search committees (neither in my own department, I hasten to add) that certain applicants’ politics made them unemployable. I’ve even been talked down by colleagues assuring senior administrators that the university didn’t have to follow the law of the land if it led to outcomes they didn’t like. By contrast, despite teaching a lot of students (by Stanford’s standards) in classes that sometimes touch on controversial subjects, I’ve never been told by an undergraduate that any topic, theory, or method is beyond the pale. Perhaps I’ve just been lucky, or maybe my students are a self-selecting lot—or maybe the longer someone spends in a university, the more self-righteous they get (says someone who’s spent his whole adult life in ivory towers). That’s a bad thing for the pursuit of truth, and it’s why we need the AFA.

HM: Since you started teaching in the late 1980s you have published well over a dozen books. Two of your more recent publications include 2022’s Geography is Destiny: Britain and the World, a 10,000-Year History, and 2010’s Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of the Past, and What they Reveal about the Future. Given the subject matter of those two works, I want to ask about possible motivational factors with the modern threats to academic freedom.  Some have said that many of the attacks on academic freedom are designed as part of a wider effort to reframe how western civilization is viewed.  Would you agree or disagree with those claims? 

IM: Both. Up to a point, I disagree. That’s because I think that reframing how we view things, especially big, important things like western civilization, is just part of what academics do. One of the toughest lessons to learn in this profession is that our own truth claims are always provisional, and that someone will sooner or later disprove them. Like Popper said, we make conjectures and others offer refutations. Western Civ is an interesting example of how it works. When I took my first proper academic job, at the University of Chicago in 1987, the only thing my new colleagues asked was that I teach at least two quarters each year in the History of Western Civ program. This had been running since 1948 and was very much a product of its times, initially serving partly to explain why the West had fought the Second World War and later morphing partly into a justification of the Cold War. Throughout, it offered a liberal, optimistic narrative of expanding freedom and rights. I was a good forty years younger than the program’s founding fathers, and didn’t always see the story the same way as them, but I found teaching the class hugely rewarding (I did the whole Plato-to-NATO yearlong sequence several times) and always felt that my elders were open to arguing over the issues. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that historians in the 2020s see things differently than I did in the 1980s or the founders did in the 1940s, or that their views tend to be darker and more critical. 

What is a bad thing, though, is that the way that academics so often slide from trying to refute other points of view to preventing them being discussed at all. That’s why I partly have to agree with the question. Stanford, where I now teach, shut its undergraduate Western Civ course down back in the 1980s, although a version of it was still being taught under another name when I arrived in 1995. The History department closed that too in the early 2000s, at just the same time that historians at Chicago ended their own Western Civ classes. I left Stanford’s History department in 2013, so I don’t know what sorts of conversations they have these days, but I’ll be very surprised if anyone proposes reviving a Western Civ course, and even more surprised if the department agrees to it. So, it’s a firm yes and no on this one.

HM: Given your expertise across multiple fields such as archeology, history, and the classics, do you find similar patterns of academic freedom concerns that affect nearly every subject or are there distinguishing problems in some fields more than others? For example, controversies about exhuming and excavating seem to be on the rise.  Has archeology experienced a dramatic shift in the opportunities to discover the past?  If so, does this impede scholars’ ability to discover and learn from these opportunities? 

IM: I’d say that every discipline faces threats to academic freedom but each faces its own versions. Classics is an odd field. Its modern version emerged in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries partly to explain Europe’s growing global dominance in terms of the Greeks’ achievements. The field rather lost its moorings in the twentieth century as alternative explanations emerged and classicists grew uncomfortable with Eurocentric arguments, but in the twenty-first, some experts have rebranded themselves as scholars trained to vilify Greece and Rome instead of celebrating them. I’ve recently been assured that the research I did in the 2000s on quantifying ancient economic growth “was implicated in a nakedly capitalist fantasy of replacing subjective knowledge with calculability” and “was simply too closely aligned with ideas and practices that had been instrumental in expropriating, displacing, and disenfranchising people around the world, especially in the global south, since the 1980s.” However, neither critic suggested that those of us who “bore the sign of neoliberalism on their forehead” should be banned from working on whatever we want. In fact, their words come from an edited book specifically intended to engage dinosaurs like me in dialog with newer ideas. In this, Classics differs from many fields. 

As long ago as 1984, the distinguished anthropologist Sherry Ortner was already grumbling that competing schools of thought “no longer [even] call each other names.” Classicists are still grounded enough to want to insult each other. Ortner seems to have been right that anthropologists aren’t. Having worked on the edges of Anthropology departments for several decades, my sense is that those who’re fully initiated into the field’s mysteries often value acting as advocates higher than pursuing truth. Given my interests, I see this most often in the study (or lack of it) of human remains. New scientific techniques such as stable-isotope analysis and whole-genome sequencing of ancient DNA have opened a golden age in archaeology. There is no way to overstate the importance of geneticists’ contributions in the past decade. But research requires access to skeletons, and when descendant communities (which can be defined in a bewildering variety of ways) object to scientific analyses, academic anthropologists very often side with them. And quite often, they are right to do so: only the morally tone-deaf would assert that the pursuit of truth always and in all circumstances outweighs other people’s values. If a new technique promised to answer every question we have about ancient Greece but only if we dissolved the Elgin Marbles in acid, I would hope that no one would apply it (even keeping the sculptures in London over the wishes of the descendant community strikes me as hard to defend). 

But real-world cases occupy grayer zones, and academics should demand very compelling reasons before sacrificing the core scholarly value of truth-seeking, no matter how much truth-seeking offends anyone. Instead, many Anthropology departments seem to be moving the same way as my own university, which resolved debates over human remains by getting rid of both of its professors of physical anthropology. That’s how academic freedom dies.

    Learn More About the Academic Freedom Alliance

    No one, at any academic institution, should fear suppression or retaliation for speaking out publicly in any form. We encourage you to join the movement in supporting the flourishing of intellectual life and the pursuit of knowledge and truth at institutions of higher learning.