The obstacle to academic freedom is academics.
Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
Back in 1915, when the American Association of University Professors issued the founding statement of academic freedom in the United States, it singled out three threats to the search for truth. Religious authorities, founders and donors, and public opinion each constrained the free pursuit of knowledge in research and teaching, the Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure stated, and professors who voiced dissident beliefs risked losing their jobs if a bishop in the president's office, a wealthy patron, or a mobilized public didn't like them.
In today's debate over academic freedom, however, while the career dangers look the same, the enemy has consolidated into one: off-campus conservative critics. The National Association of Scholars, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, David Horowitz, the occasional George Will column--they mark a coordinated onslaught of scare tactics and cheap tricks, the thinking goes. They don't occupy positions on the faculty or in the administration or among the trustees, but nonetheless, they have thrown campus denizens into alarm.
One hears of "The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American colleges" (an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education) and The Myth of Political Correctness: The Conservative Attack on Higher Education (a 1995 book). In a heated 2005 statement in the Chronicle, Columbia professor (and former-provost) Jonathan Cole pinpointed "conservative ideologues in Congress" and "the Bush Administration and its followers on Capitol Hill and in statehouses" for choking scholarly inquiry, and his title summed up the condition: "The New McCarthyism."
The assumption is now customary, and countless exchanges I've witnessed at academic conferences and dinner parties lament the right-wing menace at length--with the participants never imagining that a conservative might sit at the table.
So it is no surprise that this new book by two law professors, For the Common Good, starts by noting that "frequent and fierce debates about the nature of academic freedom have resulted from a systematic and sustained effort to discipline what some regard as an out-of-control liberal professoriat." Authors Matthew Finkin of the University of Illinois and Robert C. Post of Yale admit that outcries of a "liberal professoriat that has subverted and betrayed basic academic values" have been "loudly reiterated throughout the country" in spite of, they add, "the alarming absence of empirical evidence underlying these repeated charges."
But rather than contesting the charges, they have a different aim. Adopting the pose of reasoned observers rising above the fray, they review a century of texts, cases, and principles that make up the "common law" of academic freedom in our nation and that can "guide us through current controversies with intellectual integrity and coherence." The result is a handy and readable survey of theory and practice, with pointed illustrations of faculty renegades and administrator tyrants, along with the AAUP's efforts to arbitrate the delicate balance between intellectual innovation and academic duty, adversarial minds and scholarly guidelines.
Finkin and Post venture prudently through the central cruxes--the status of professors as employees; the services they owe employers, colleagues, students, and the public; teaching vs. indoctrination; the rights of students--and they helpfully recall petty despotisms over the years and the ideals that best oppose them.
For all their calm and impartiality, though, the authors overlook a key element, one that dwarfs the perils set by donors and churchmen. It marks, in fact, a gaping and symptomatic blind spot that contributes to the very dangers Finkin and Post describe. It isn't their failure to take conservative complaints seriously, though that certainly happens. Rather, it is that, in the entire book, Finkin and Post accept the values and protocols of academic disciplines as all-intellectual, all-scholarly. They acknowledge wayward professors who penalize students for not following party lines, but they don't acknowledge how party lines can take root in fields and don the mask of academic doctrine and propriety.
They speak of "professional expertise," "professional norms of inquiry," "criteria of academic merit," and "accepted intellectual standards" without admitting the obvious fact that political and ideological values settle into disciplines all the time, particularly the "softer" ones (humanities departments, education schools, etc.). They are so accepted that they look precisely like norms and standards. And they repress academic freedom not by an individual's fiat, but by a collective professional judgment--for instance, a department voting to deny tenure to an assistant professor.
Here's an example of how it works. The Mission Statement of the School of Social Work at the University of Texas states that the principles and standards that guide "the conduct of our faculty, staff, and students" are, one, "we should work to promote social justice and social change, and should strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice," and, two, that "the dissemination of knowledge is enhanced by the presence of cultural and ethnic diversity in our classrooms."
There are two problems here. First, the statement proposes a course of action, not of understanding. It doesn't say, "We should reflect on various theories and practices of social justice." It says "promote." Second, it makes a flat assertion about knowledge in diverse classrooms that, in effect, closes off an important line of research. In truth, the whole question of learning outcomes in diverse and nondiverse classrooms remains open in education research--but not here. A single conception (needless to say, a tendentious one) is written into the premises of the field. If a student wants merely to inquire whether or not knowledge does circulate better within a culturally and ethnically diverse classroom, he violates first principles.
Participants in the University of Texas School of Social Work must accept one answer if they wish to continue. And when some conservative objects, insiders in the school may reply, "Well, this outlook has been established as expert thinking in the field." Thus an agenda passes as expertise.
Other examples are easy to find, and so, when Finkin and Post cite professional norms as if they were always the result of open inquiry--when they announce, "In higher education no idea is immune from potentially scathing criticism"--one wonders what universe they inhabit. Sacred cows are everywhere (diversity, multiculturalism, affirmative action, pro-choice), and if you cross them, you jeopardize your advancement.
If academic freedom is "the freedom to pursue the scholarly profession . . . according to norms and standards of that profession," then academic freedom rests on what academics erect as normative. A nice, convenient formulation, and with it Finkins and Post give professors a commanding rejoinder to conservative critics: "You are not one of us," they huff. "You are not credentialed. You do not qualify for this
Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory, is the author, most recently, of Negrophobia: A Race Riot in Atlanta, 1906.