Freedman meets the press in D.C.

by Charles Davant | 10/17/97 5:00am

WASHINGTON, Oct. 16 -- In a speech here today at the National Press Club, College President James Freedman praised intellectualism, which he said provides an alternative to mainstream thought at a time when liberal education, affirmative action and government funding of the arts are under attack.

American society's devotion to the "cash value" of ideas generates a "culture of celebrity and soundbites" and a "tyranny of short-sightedness," Freedman told a gathering of about 150 reporters and dignitaries -- including feminist Betty Friedan, New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg and several Dartmouth Trustees. His appearance at the weekly National Press Club luncheon is expected to be broadcast by C-SPAN television and some National Public Radio affiliates.

He spoke for about 25 minutes, then answered questions from the audience.

Freedman said suspicion of intellectuals continues to reveal itself "in widespread attacks on higher education, and on the professoriate in particular, in renewed calls for a narrow vocationalism and practicality in college curricula, and in perennial efforts to abolish the National Endowments of the Humanities and the Arts, both of which are vital sources of support for intellectuals."

He was outspoken in his support for affirmative action -- preferential hiring for women and minorities -- both during his speech and in answers to questions from the crowd. Affirmative action has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. Proposition 209 in California and the Hopwood court ruling in Texas outlawed certain types of race-based preferences in those states. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on race-based hiring next summer.

"The impulses that animated the civil rights movement have weakened, and this country is considering whether to diminish its commitment to the American Creed of equality by dismantling affirmative action," Freedman said. "The civil-rights issues of today may seem more textured, more complicated and, perhaps, more ambiguous than those of three decades ago, but affirmative action remains an important part of our commitment to a multiracial society, not only as a matter of social justice, but also as a recognition of our common humanity."

Without affirmative action, America could become a nation in which minorities are excluded from all of the positions of leadership and prestige, he said.

Intellectuals, Freedman said, can overcome the prejudices of the mainstream, and they are endowed with an "exceptional capacity to advance the common good."

"We need to acknowledge forthrightly that intellectuals make significant and enduring contributions to our lives and to helping Americans exercise the responsibilities of democratic citizenship," he said.

Freedman cited four American authors for generating revolutionary ideas that lead to sweeping changes in American democracy: Gunnar Myrdal, John Kenneth Galbraith, Oscar Handlin and David Riesman. Freedman devoted the bulk of the 25-minute speech to discussing the legacy of these men.

Myrdal, a Swedish economist, wrote the book "An American Dilemma," which criticized the nation for failing to give African-Americans equal opportunity. Freedman said Myrdal's analysis was instrumental in the Court's 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that struck down the "separate but equal" doctrine some whites used to justify segregation.

Freedman lauded Galbraith's 1958 treatise "The Affluent Society," which argued that economic growth and productivity could -- paradoxically -- hurt the nation, by damaging the environment and weakening public services. Freedman said Galbraith's book shaped public policy during the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

Handlin's "The Uprooted," published in 1951, convinced many that immigration is the source of America's ethnic and ideological diversity, and a key component to the strength of the its democracy. Handlin's book is particularly relevant in 1997, Freedman said.

"In recent years, the political rhetoric concerning immigrants has again turned nativist and intolerant. Legislation reducing the eligibility of certain immigrants for welfare benefits has demonstrated an alarming measure of unfounded suspicion," he said. "The harsh tone of the rhetoric and the punitive character of the legislation have suggested a lack of generosity and hospitality -- indeed, a scapegoating -- that threatens to undermine an historic national interest."

Freedman also touted Riesman's 1950 book "The Lonely Crowd," which paints American society as increasingly fractionalized and isolated. The book, like "The Uprooted" remains relevant today.

"We still are threatened by social and economic forces that erode the status of individuals from active citizens, working within a web of public and communal associations, to passive consumers, detached from one another and deluged with commercials and soundbites," he said.

Freedman said that supporting intellectuals is America's best bet for forging a vibrant democracy.

He said, "We need, in short, to affirm that supporting the mission of intellectuals as critics, scholars, teachers, thinkers and writers is one of the wisest investments we can make as a people."