The obstacle to academic freedom is academics.
Mar 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 25 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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.