There has been an outcry against Iowa State University over a short essay assignment for International Studies students. It is a firestorm that most faculty hardly expect with regard to a singe essay assignment of a minimum of 500 words. However, students were told to “Write a paper that gives a historical account of 911 from the perspective of the terrorist network. In other words, how might Al-Qaeda or a non-Western historian describe what happened.” There have been calls for action by the state legislature. I hope that the state legislature will consider the impact of such action against the values of academic freedom. Faculty often try to force students from looking at issues from different perspectives, particularly in the area of international studies. That does not mean that the school favors Al Qaeda or belittles 9-11.
The assignment itself describes the terror attack was a “heinous action.” However, it is often educational to force students to think like criminals or terrorists to better understand them. In the same way, history departments have long asked for students to write about Pearl Harbor from the perspective of the Japanese or Vietnam from the perspective of the Viet Cong.
These are college students who are old enough to understand the difference. If Iowa State University is to commit with the top schools in the nation, it must be able to afford faculty the essential protections of academic freedom. Moreover, conservatives cannot object to the reduction of free speech on campuses (as I have), but then move to silence teachers who assign challenging essays from different perspectives. Understanding Al Qaeda does not mean agreeing or supporting Al Qaeda.
Simply assigning such an essay should not be an invitation for the intervention of politicians into classrooms at Iowa State University.
What do you think?