Open academic culture, more crucial than ever, is in peril
Why campuses are becoming polarized — and what we can do about it.
- The narrowing of academic freedom is a major problem for institutions of higher education.
- Social media, external pressures, and increasingly diverse student bodies — while providing some positives — create more opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication.
- Reaffirming the value of and commitment to open debate ensures a more vibrant academic culture.
Polarization, which divides our country to a historic degree these days, is no stranger to academia. Many people on campuses nationwide, including professors, cite a feeling of walking on eggshells around students and colleagues. Academic freedom and a commitment to open inquiry and open discussion, long the mission of colleges and universities, is endangered.
While polling reveals universities continue to do better than other institutions as places to meet and discuss big ideas across divides, outrage mobs targeted at academics (sometimes by other academics) and recent instances of banning speakers suggests that the narrowing of academic freedom is a growing problem.
How academic freedom strengthens the bonds of accumulated knowledge
Several factors play into this trend. Social media is a blessing and a curse — a great way for up-and-coming scholars to quickly share their work but also an instantaneous vehicle for acrimony. External pressures, be they state budget cutbacks, enrollment fluctuations, or a desire to put on a good face for alumni and donors, squeeze our institutions with a new level of ferocity. Changes in funding can encourage administrations to view university resources as zero sum, pushing individuals into a defensive, rather than open, mindset. And, as institutions become more and more conscious of outsiders' perceptions, faculty with controversial opinions can be treated as liabilities.
Finally, the diversification of student bodies, a cause for celebration, can inadvertently create new challenges. The postwar period has seen more and more women, minorities, non-traditional students, and first-generation college attendees pursuing degrees. The value of increased access to college education is immense — for individuals, universities, and the country at large. Diversity enriches perspectives present on campus, but it can also lead to increased opportunity for misunderstanding and miscommunication across divides if not handled well at the expense of open debate.
Many of these pressures on open academic discourse are not unique to academia. Some, particularly the increasing range of Americans who can attend college, are great positives. But all point to an institution undergoing seismic change. When added to the many other opportunities and challenges universities face concerning access, quality, and equipping today's students for success, it is easy to lose sight of the important culture of openness that makes our universities special compared to any other institution.
Reaffirming the importance of an open academy
How can we ensure that our colleges and universities remain places where controversial ideas are openly discussed and differences in thought and opinion are not just expressed but listened to? Faculty must remain committed to a culture of open debate; no one else within the academy can be regularly relied upon to be advocates for these values.
This is not to suggest that administrators or presidents are hostile to free expression. Far from it. Many presidents, such as Mitch Daniels at Purdue or Robert Zimmerman at the University of Chicago have robustly and articulately defended the value of open discourse. But university leaders are not involved in the daily give-and-take of academic discourse. Professors are the linchpin of academic freedom, and they must lead the charge to open debate.
In reaffirming these values, it is important for faculty to incorporate them in their own work. This means welcoming other views and recognizing the value they add to the conversation. While the rest of the culture may be consumed by partisan rancor on social media, academics can and should aspire to be better. Creating a truly open conversation requires a willingness to be a little kinder to each other and to assume that others in the academic enterprise are acting with best intentions even when they might be wrong. It's faculty who most benefit from a university's commitment to open discourse; it is they who must become its most ardent defenders.
Faculty must become educators not only in their field but as advocates for open inquiry. As those who uphold and create a vibrant academic culture, professors are the ones who can educate others in that culture — students, administrators, donors and lawmakers. In much the same way that many media organizations look, as they deliver the news, to educate their readers about the importance of sourcing and fact-checking — core practices of reliable news gathering—faculty should emphasize how a culture of openness is critical to conducting their work. The goal should be to welcome and incorporate new voices while retaining a commitment to core university values.
How can we improve the quality of higher education?
Researchers detect a large lake and several ponds deep under the ice of the Martian South Pole.
- Italian scientists release findings of a large underground lake and three ponds below the South Pole of Mars.
- The lake might contain water, with salt preventing them from freezing.
- The presence of water may indicate the existence of microbial and other life forms on the planet.
Mars colony: Humanity's greatest quest | Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, & more | Big Think<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="aa931ba0f8c1152a7c32c5e09c55d138"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KfKr5Jll88o?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
"Nothing but naked people: fat ones, thin ones, old, young…"
"The Yellow Sands", 1888, John Reinhard Weguelin; source: Wikimedia Commons<h3>Naked revolution</h3><p>Yet long before anyone knew about beach fashion, naturism was trendy. Bathing naked in the sea was going on in England as early as 1840. However, during the reign of Queen Victoria, this pleasure was outlawed. But it popped up again among the conservative Germans. In 1898, the first Naturist Club was founded in Essen and in 1900 the Wandering Birds group (<em>Wandervögel</em>) was scouring the country for uninhabited places and naked sunbathing. In the same year, Heinrich Pudor wrote <em>The C</em><em>ult of </em><em>the </em><em>Nud</em><em>e</em>, winning the hearts of contemporary supporters of naturism.</p><p>In the 1920s, on the back of this, members of the Movement for Natural Healing (<em>Naturheilbewegung</em>) organized naked sunbathing for the improvement of health. Persuaded by Pudor's theory of the healing properties of the sun and wind, which could be absorbed through the skin, they launched the naked revolution.</p><p>Pudor's book became the naturists' manifesto and soon after, not far from Hamburg, the Free Body Culture (<em>Freikörperkultur</em>, or FKK) movement was founded. This spread through other German centres and brought together thousands of people. The FKK still operates under the same name today.</p><p>The cult of the naked body even wrote itself into the ideology of fascist Germany, which advocated a pure, Aryan race. But in 1933, Hermann Göring issued an order that defined nudity as "the greatest threat to the German soul" and, with that, criminalized naturist organizations. But this wasn't the end of the movement. The naturists went underground, continuing their activities under the guise of improving physical fitness.</p><p>In 1936, the idea was even floated of having a naturist display to open the Berlin Olympic Games. It was quickly dropped. Despite this, in 1939 the naturists managed to organize their own Games in the Swiss village of Thielle.</p>
The microbes that eventually produced the planet's oxygen had to breathe something, after all.
- We owe the Earth's oxygen to ancient microbes that photosynthesized and released it into the world's oceans.
- A long-standing question has been "before oxygen, what did they breathe?"
- The discovery of microbes living in a hostile early-Earth-like environment may provide the answer.
Unassuming but remarkable microbial mats<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzE3Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjk0MzE4Nn0.FhrDr5RTfRIBdf5uhnmzSPNYz-CwNiPbVYgam5eNaoY/img.jpg?width=980" id="d5e1c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2e5e1b019d0bb1987ee730f91b550cc" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Razzu Engen/Flickr<p> Photosynthesis chiefly requires sunlight, water, and CO<sup>2</sup>. The CO<sup>2</sup> gets broken down into carbon and oxygen — the plant uses some of this oxygen and releases the rest. Without CO<sup>2</sup>'s oxygen molecules, though, how did this work? </p><p> There are known microbial mats today that live in oxygen-free environments, but they're not thought to be sufficiently like their ancestors to explain ancient photosynthesis in an oxygen-free environment. </p><p> There have been a few oxygen stand-ins proposed. Photosynthesis can work with iron molecules, but fossil-record evidence doesn't support that idea. Hydrogen and sulphur have also been proposed, though evidence for them is also lacking. </p><p> The spotlight began to shift to arsenic in the first decade of the millennium when arsenic-breathing microbial mats were discovered in two hypersaline California lakes, <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/308/5726/1305.abstract" target="_blank">Searles Lake</a> and <a href="https://www.discovermagazine.com/planet-earth/mono-lake-bacteria-build-their-dna-using-arsenic-and-no-this-isnt-about-aliens" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mono Lake</a>. In 2014, Visscher and colleagues <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/ngeo2276" target="_blank">unearthed indications</a> of arsenic-based photosynthesis, or ""arsenotrophic," microbial mats deep in the fossil record of the Tumbiana Formation of Western Australia. </p><p> Still, given the ever-shifting geology of the planets, the fractured ancient fossil record makes definitive study of ancient arsenotrophic photosynthesis difficult. The fossil record can't identify the role of the arsenic it reveals: was it involved in photosynthesis or just a toxic chemical that happened to be there? </p><p>Then, last year, arsenic-breathing microorganisms <a href="https://www.washington.edu/news/2019/05/01/arsenic-breathing-life-discovered-in-the-tropical-pacific-ocean/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were discovered</a> in the Pacific Ocean. A sulphur bacterium, <em>Ectothiorhodospira sp.</em> was also recently found to be metablozing arsenic into <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenite" target="_blank">arsenite</a> in <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5064118/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Big Soda Lake</a> in Nevada. </p>
An ancient Earth environment, today<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDQ0NzIxMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTQwOTYyN30.v96ZRXpIAf4yzDwcvXzVV3Fa4qULtUMxanXguPHD2wI/img.jpg?width=980" id="9eec4" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a23585c057ee50ed500b96125e4a6b05" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
a Map of Northern Chile; b Detail of frame showing Laguna La Brava in the southern Atacama; c The channel showing the mats in purple; d Hand sample, cross-section; e Microscopic image of bacteria.
Credit: Visscher, et al./communications earth & environment<p>The study reports on Visscher's discovery of a living microbial mat thriving in an arsenic environment in Laguna La Brava in the Atacama Desert in Chile. "We started working in Chile," Visscher tells <a href="https://today.uconn.edu/2020/09/without-oxygen-earths-early-microbes-relied-arsenic-sustain-life/" target="_blank"><em>UConn Today</em></a>, "where I found a blood-red river. The red sediments are made up by <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anoxygenic_photosynthesis" target="_blank">anoxogenic</a> photosynthetic bacteria. The water is very high in arsenic as well. The water that flows over the mats contains hydrogen sulfide that is volcanic in origin and it flows very rapidly over these mats. There is absolutely no oxygen."</p><p>The mats have not previously been studied, and the conditions in which they live are tantalizingly similar to those of early Earth. It's a high-altitude, permanently oxygen-free state with extreme temperature swings and lots of UV exposure. </p><p>The mats that somewhat resemble Nevada's purple <em>Ectothiorhodospira sp.</em> are going about their business of making carbonate deposits, forming new stromatolites. Most excitingly, those deposits contain evidence that the mats are metabolizing arsenic. The rushing waters surrounding the mats are also rich in hydrogen sulphide and arsenic.</p><p>Says Visscher, "I have been working with microbial mats for about 35 years or so. This is the only system on Earth where I could find a microbial mat that worked absolutely in the absence of oxygen."</p><p>Not that Earth is the only place where this could happen. Visscher notes that the equipment they used for studying the Laguna La Brava mats is not unlike the system aboard the Mars Perseverance Rover. He says, "In looking for evidence of life on Mars, they will be looking at iron, and probably they should be looking at arsenic also."</p>
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