Alan Charles Kors
National Humanities Medal
Alan Chalres Kors is a busy man. On one side is his scholarly work on the Enlightenment, and on the other is what he calls "the civic side of my academic life," his work as an advocate in the defense of academic freedom.
"You don't choose the historical moment into which you were born," says Kors. "If you find yourself in higher education and at universities at moments of unfairness and abuse of power, then you have a moral responsibility both to higher education and to your students and to a free society to do something about the state of rights and liberties. But I never let that take me away from my scholarly and teaching obligations. I adore teaching."
Professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania since 1968, where he now holds the George H. Walker Endowed Term Chair, Kors is a distinguished historian of the Enlightenment. He has published numerous books and articles on the conceptual revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and served as editor in chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, which was published in 2002. In addition, he has received two distinguished teaching awards: the Lindback Foundation Award, and the Ira Abrams Memorial Award.
"The Enlightenment was a phenomenon that worked for greater tolerance," says Kors. "It was marked by a belief in the need to end the presumptive authority of the past and to open all significant questions up to new debate, new inquiry and new perspectives. And it was an age that encouraged the freest possible intellectual life."
Kors's interests in the Enlightenment, in academic tolerance and the free exchange of ideas coincided with his entrance into American higher education in the 1960s. "I entered a university system that I loved," he says. "For me, it was built around intellectual openness and pluralism and a deep respect of students as young adults who were to be educated in circumstances of freedom and dignity and individual rights."
However, in the decades since, he has witnessed an unwelcome change on American campuses. "I watched with growing concern and fear and moral uneasiness," he says, "as I saw the generation that had given us the free speech movement now give us speech codes." Born out of a desire to create a harassment-free environment on campuses, universities have prohibited speech that might be found offensive. Kors is not a proponent of offensive speech but an advocate for free speech, in whatever form it takes.
"There is certainly, at some level, a connection between what draws me to the Enlightenment and what draws me to my interest in what has befallen higher education," he says. This has led Kors to coauthor The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses with civil liberties attorney, Harvey Silvergate. It has also stirred them to found FIRE: Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. According to Kors, the mission of FIRE is "to defend people who are the victims of unfair abuses of power at universities and to educate the public about the state of liberty and rights on college campuses, to educate students about their real rights and dignities, and to provide a clearinghouse of accurate vetted information on a university by university basis."
Kors believes that the study of the ideals of the Enlightenment may be more pertinent now than ever. "If there were common denominators of the Enlightenment, they were the recognition of the social, political, and moral necessity of religious toleration, of open debate, of intellectual pluralism, and of freedom of speech and expression," he says. "The Enlightenment also addressed, however confusedly, the tension between fear of government power and the need for government to work on behalf of securing 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' for free citizens. To say the least, every one of these issues remains at the center of contemporary needs and concerns."