Academic Freedom and the Historical-Comparative Method

Academic freedom is the lifeblood of the academy. Without the freedom to make interpretations and draw judgments about the empirical and conceptual materials in front of them, intellectuals can’t do their work. The desire to censor objectionable materials and punish the professors who present them is not the work of rational minds but of ideologues who wish to put the university in the service of state and other projects—in the case of the persecution of Bill Robinson, the project of a foreign power. We must not allow the university to become any more of a tool of the elite, foreign or domestic, any more than it is already.

Historical comparison is standard method in both social science and historiography, and comparisons may involve historical facts, documents, photographs, art, music, religious ideology, and so forth. One compares cases to theorize and test hypotheses concerning the causal forces and processes underpinning social phenomena. For example, one may compare revolutions to test the hypothesis that, for example, a weak state is the main factor in successful social revolutions. In making such comparisons it is understood that the cases are not identical, rather that they have differences and similarities.

In the Robinson case, the professor forwarded a comparisons between the Warsaw and Gaza ghettos, the experience of the victims (Jews and Palestinians), and the behavior of the oppressors (Germans and Jews). Both cases were the result of ethnonationalist projects and the similarities are too numerous to document here (view the materials for yourself and study the cases—any objective observer will find the comparison apt). To be sure, there were differences. Of course. But the differences do not eradicate the similarities.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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