September 27, 2008

Both Fish and Bérubé are wrong

Some years ago, I ran across someone who was so firmly convinced that schools were heterosexist, he thought that K-12 teachers should be forbidden from mentioning anything about their private lives lest they reinforce heteronormative assumptions. I asked, "Okay, so that means you can't have a picture of your spouse or children on your desk?" "Of course not!" was the reply. That took my breath away, and I was thinking of asking whether we should just give up this parental childrearing idea entirely and have state-run creches. But I thought better of my time and his and just shook my head and walked away.

That type of foolishness has its parallel in higher education with the biennial arguments about Bumper Stickers and Buttons. Along with the foolishness this week in Illinois whereby faculty and staff were told they could not have political bumper stickers on cars they parked on campus (All faculty must leave their classes right now and scrape the "Harry Potter for President" stickers off their cars, or so I imagined), I received an e-mail from a colleague asking about candidate buttons worn on campus. I explained the usual distinction between public and private resources—you can't use public property to support candidates, but I assume faculty buy their own clothes, so they're festooning personal property—and the distinction between sense and propriety. Not everything that is unwise is unprofessional: you're not going to impress your students if you wear a huge McCain or Obama button, but telling a faculty member not to wear campaign buttons is a violation of a faculty member's rights. Yes, faculty and students have rights to do foolish things as well as brilliant things.

And, yes, I included both faculty and students in that statement. When he was on campus Tuesday, Michael Bérubé said that students do not have academic freedom and that he agrees with Stanley Fish's argument that academic freedom is a guild concept. Because I agree with Bérubé on a great deal in terms of academic politics, in some ways it is a relief to find something on which we disagree; otherwise, I'd worry that I was a figment of his imagination. (Please don't explain in comments that he could surely imagine someone with whom he disagrees and thus I am still a figment of his imagination. I know that argument, it ignores the ineffability of English professors, and I'm just holding onto this thin reed of intellectual autonomy as is, so will you stop with the Jesuitical reasoning already?)

More seriously, Fish's argument is an understandable but narrow view of academic freedom, and despite what he thinks, it is weak ground on which to make the case for academic freedom.


Fish asks, Is academic freedom a philosophical concept tied to larger concepts of individual dignity and autonomy, or is it a guild concept developed in an effort to insulate the enterprise from the threat of a hostile takeover? That's a great start, a combination of a false dichotomy and straw-man argument. Apart from the fact that there are arguments in favor of academic freedom that are not rooted in either a priori concepts of intellectual freedom or guild protections, though, using the term guild is not very specific. This is fairly typical of Fish's ex cathedra pronouncements of Academic Truth, full of elisions that make me want to tear my hair out.

Fortunately for my sanity, if nothing else, Michael Bérubé put flesh on Fish's frisson in his talk Tuesday. He argued that Fish's guild concept was rooted in the academic's search for truth, whose path is unpredictable. Because of that unpredictability, faculty could not be restricted in the direction their inquiries took. Faculty are confirmed in their expertise, so they get this freedom. Students are not, so they don't have academic freedom.

This sounds like a clean distinction until you poke below the surface. Do I have academic freedom because I engage in research but my colleagues who are just instructors do not have academic freedom because they don't publish? Wait: maybe we let teachers have academic freedom because you never know where class may go in a field like mine. So do instructors have academic freedom in the humanities but not in calculus, because intro calc is well defined? Or suppose you tie it to the stability of the job because you don't want some full-time faculty to be excluded or have there be arguments about which field has academic freedom. Then you have the question of whether full-time faculty have academic freedom but adjuncts don't. What about graduate students, who are learning but also teach and engage in research? Ah, but they're not yet confirmed experts. But in some fields doctoral students commonly publish before their dissertation, while in other departments new assistant professors sometimes are hired as ABDs without publications. So does the ABD and unpublished assistant professor have academic freedom at a university where the published advanced doctoral student doesn't? Or suppose you have a doctoral student at a university who also teaches and has tenure at a nearby community college. Does she have academic freedom or not? According to the guild concept, she might have it when at work at the community college (where she has tenure), but not at the university, even though her work at a university may contribute more to the body of knowledge in her field. If your brain is about to explode from these problems, follow my advice: don't root academic freedom in a guild concept.

The other problem with the guild notion of academic freedom is its political viability: today, not only is it dangerous to imply that faculty should have academic freedom while you don't because we're special, it fails a basic reality check. A high enough proportion of the general population has a college education that we just aren't that special. Maybe only one percent of the American population has a Ph.D., but we've done a pretty darn good job of educating our neighbors so that they can think for themselves. That's a good thing, on the whole. Maybe you're not a trained scientist, but some of you participate in the annual Christmas bird count, or you're an amateur astronomer, or you know Lilium columbianum when you see it. For me to claim that only I have the academic freedom to be protected when I talk about those things while you don't is guilding the lily (the Tiger lily, if you're curious, though I can't guarantee I could spot it in a field). When defenders of academic freedom use arguments that are as fallacious as they are pretentious, they are not helping defend the professoriate from political interference.

A far better route is to take part of Bérubé's commentary on Fish—that academic freedom is rooted in the job we do—and expand the way we look at the job of faculty and universities. Maybe Stanley Fish thinks the academic is interested in an abstract, decontextualized search for truth (see Steven Kellman's Chronicle column for a nice response to that claim), but many of the historical academic freedom controversies are rooted firmly in politics. I suspect that for those whose academic freedom was violated thanks to the economics of the dairy economy or the politics of the Cold War, Fish's defense of them as only in search of the (defenestrated, lifeless) truth would be cold comfort. We may academicize the world because that's the modus operandi of analysis, but we can be motivated by the same passions as our neighbors.

The search for truth isn't as ascetic as Fish would hope. It is emotional, personal, and often a matter of sensitive politics. As higher education has evolved in the U.S. and elsewhere, college and university faculty look for truth and are general social critics. The rhetoric and reality of academic freedom is a political construct, tied to our institutional role as social whistleblower. Sometimes that's "social" in an ascetic-truth sense, and sometimes it's social in a very political sense. To divorce faculty from the development of political rights in American history is to ignore the real history of academic freedom controversies and the growing recognition of general free-speech rights. Of course, Stanley Fish doesn't believe in free speech, either. But I do, I bet you do, and that means that we can and should talk about academic freedom in a political context.

To make that case means that we have to acknowledge that students have academic freedom in an institutional context (i.e., when they're at a public university). If we tell students that they have no academic freedom, we're inviting them to care less about the academic freedom of faculty once they leave us. If we invite them into the sphere of protection we'd like enlarged, they'll be far more likely to support academic freedom as older adults. So for all sorts of selfish and historical reasons, I hereby proclaim that college students have academic freedom, and it's a good thing, too.

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Posted in Academic freedom on September 27, 2008 7:32 PM |