Article written by Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo on "Why the Academy Must Protect America’s Democratic Soul" - The Chronicle of Higher Education

January 01, 2017 | Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo

Academic life is an ethical enterprise. If you have any doubts, try spending time in a high-security Iranian prison, as I did, detained not for anything I did but for the views I hold. After 125 days in solitary confinement, I understood well that being an academic means more than teaching students and jockeying for tenure. I will never forget the support of hundreds of academics around the world who signed an open letter to Iran’s president demanding my release. If not for the efforts of scholars like Richard Rorty and Michael Ignatieff, I might have spent more time in prison.

I walked out of prison with the conviction that academics can save lives and transform societies.
In a 2007 exchange of letters with Rorty, I underlined Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea that Americans cannot themselves be free unless people are free in the poorer nations of Africa, Asia and Latin America. I continue to believe that today. When Walt Whitman wrote that "Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature," he meant that Americans were more inclined than most to dream of a better world — a world at peace, a world in which social justice is reconciled with individual freedom.
That dream has been kept alive by the scholars, intellectuals, and politicians who have tried to convince their fellow citizens that the important thing about America is not that it is rich and powerful, but rather that its history embodies a persistent faith in liberal democracy as the indispensable guardian of personal dignity and individual opportunity.
President Trump’s ban on entry to the United States from seven majority-Muslim countries reminds us that democracy is a fragile social and historical experience. And so I turn to my American academic friends: Where do you stand when basic liberties are in danger? Moreover, what will the academy be in the age of Trump — a class of arm-chaired professionals or guardians of the democratic soul?
The academy has historically deepened the virtue of citizenship in practice. This was the guiding political philosophy of the Founding Fathers. For them it was a way of life and an uncompromising commitment to civic virtue. Let us not forget what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816: "We may say with truth and meaning, that governments are more or less republican as they have more or less of the element of popular election and control in their composition; and believing, as I do, that the mass of the citizens is the safest depository of their own rights, and especially, that the evils flowing from the duperies of the people, are less injurious than those from the egoism of their agents."
The "Trumpization of the public sphere" — an absence of moral thinking and moral judgment — is replacing civic republicanism and citizen virtue. The challenge of this new era is to redefine the American dream as a shared enterprise, a global commons. This is where the bridge between the American academy and the political world becomes more crucial than ever before.
Ramin Jahanbegloo is a professor and vice dean at Jindal Global Law School. He is the author, most recently, of Gadflies in the Public Space: A Socratic Legacy of Philosophical Dissent (Lexington Books, 2016)
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Trump and Immigration