About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Monday, February 16, 2009

What is academic freedom?

Time to put New York Times’ columnist Stanley Fish in his place, again. Fish is a rather interesting kind of animal: an academic through and through (he is, after all a professor of law at Florida International University and dean emeritus of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and before that has taught at the University of California at Berkeley, Johns Hopkins and Duke University), who nevertheless relishes harsh criticism of academia. I have taken him to task before for his comments on the “new atheism” and for his unbounded enthusiasm for much nonsense that goes under the umbrella of post-modernism and deconstructionism.

This past couple of weeks Fish has been busy attacking what he calls “academic exceptionalism,” the alleged sin of a large numbers of his own colleagues (but not, one would guess, his own) who think that “the university may pay my salary, provide me with a platform, benefits, students, an office, secretarial help and societal status, but I retain my right to act in disregard of its interests.” Let us set aside the obvious fact that both the social status and salary of academics are anything but stellar, that our platform is rather limited and usually ignored, that the students often struggle to achieve high-school level performance, the offices are on the dingy side, and the secretaries are few and overwhelmed (the benefits are, on the whole, pretty good, relatively speaking -- but that’s only because we live in a country where a huge number of people have no benefits at all).

Fish is incensed by the case of one professor Denis Rancourt, a faculty member at the University of Ottawa who started out his semester by giving top grades to all his students and gingerly proceeded to teach political activism rather than physics, for which he was actually hired. But guess what? Rancourt now faces dismissal from the school, and rightly so. Which not only shows that the system actually works despite “academic exceptionalism,” but that such a philosophy must be pretty rare indeed, because this is the first case I’ve heard of and I have never, ever, in my entire career witnessed any other claim by an academic that came even close to Rancourt’s bold idiocy. Then again, perhaps things are different at Florida International.

Fish’s underlying question is a good one: what, exactly, is academic freedom, and what are its reasonable boundaries? Fish cites a couple of outrageous court cases to argue that it is not a constitutionally-given right and that its scope should be rather limited. For instance, in US v. Doe (back in 1972) the courts rejected the claim by a researcher that his academic freedom meant that he did not have to answer questions about his research in a subpoena. I would agree: indeed, I think the results of scientific inquiry ought to be made public if the researcher or institution used even a penny of federal or state money, as is usually the case.

Then again, to argue that we should reject a concept like academic freedom simply because it’s not in the US Constitution is rather a narrow view, even on purely legal grounds. There is no Constitutional protection of journalistic sources either, and yet many in recent years have argued that there should be one (within limits), because of the good it does for society. Accordingly, several States have passed laws to that effect, and even Congress has considered the issue. Rights aren’t a God-given immutable set, they are won or lost by legal battles, legislative battles and the education of the people at large.

So what is academic freedom after all? It isn’t the caricature that Fish pretends so many academics put forth. It is certainly not a license to do whatever one wants regardless of the rules and regulations of one’s place of work. University professors are not free to insult their students (unless by “insulting” one means to present them with a view that is at odds with their metaphysical or cultural presuppositions); they cannot teach whatever they want (as the Rancourt case demonstrates); they cannot even simply refuse a direct order from the Department Chair or Dean to show up to a usually useless committee meeting, because there are administrative penalties to be reckoned with -- just like in any other job. (Contrary to popular perception, professors do have a hierarchical series of bosses, which usually include, from the bottom up: Department Chair or Head, Dean, Provost, President, and Board of Trustees; in the case of State universities, add the State Governor and Legislature. Also contrary to popular myth, professors can be fired, even if they have tenure, though the standards in the latter case are quite high.)

But academics do have an ethical duty to pursue scholarship (largely) in whatever way they see fit, with minimal interference from the university’s administration. Moreover, they should be allowed to teach their specialties within very broad educational parameters, not the far too much business-like views of so many (but of course not all) administrators. And perhaps equally importantly they should be able to address the public, as intellectuals, in whatever way and through whatever medium they deem effective (including blogs in the New York Times). The reason for this large (but not infinite) latitude is because -- as even Fish grudgingly admits -- academia is a different type of job from most others. It’s not just that the product (“education”) is hard to measure by its very nature; it is that the “clients” are not even (only) the students, but their parents (who usually pay handsomely for said education) and, more importantly, society at large. It is in society’s broad interest that we produce not only competent specialists but, ideally, citizens capable of critical thinking.

If Fish wishes to aim at a truly important target he should “think again” (the title of his blog) about university administrators who -- this time truly with a small number of exceptions -- seem to consider themselves the raison d’être for the existence of universities, which they increasingly run as a Wall Street-type business (oh boy!) or use as a trampoline for their own career and political ambitions. Administrators should be the smallest and most invisible gear of the university’s machine. They ought to work to maximize faculty’s ability to teach and do scholarship (in that order, not the usual reversed one) and of students to learn and grow. In order to do that, administrators should be invisibly busy trying to raise as much capital as possible and, well, administer it in the most efficient way possible. The reality, as anyone including Fish can easily tell you, is far from this ideal, and that is the real scandal. And by the way, exactly what did you do to improve things when you were a Dean at the University of Illinois, Prof. Fish?

What I find dangerous in writings like Fish’s (and not just these past couple of columns in the NYT) is that they represent an insane attack from within on academia, an already beleaguered institution, constantly under assault by all sorts of anti-intellectual forces. The same forces that brought us the Christian Right and George W., have made a mockery of reason and argument, and have ignored science in the pursuit of blind and destructive ideological agendas. The classical types of anti-intellectualism described by Richard Hofstadter have now been joined by extreme post-structuralism and deconstructionism, ironically themselves movements made possible by that very academia that they criticize with such gusto.

Time to take reason back from all ranks of anti-intellectualists. Time to defend rights like that of academic freedom, regardless -- or in fact precisely because -- they are not enshrined in the Constitution. Time to recognize the value of what more than a thousand years of struggle against church and government have wrestled from the clutches of power to benefit us as a society of (ideally) freethinking individuals, including Professor Fish.


  1. Obviously, I agree with your point. I do have to add, though, that what you say about the 'clients' of the universities is at once too negative and too positive. It is overly positive because all too often the clients turn out to be actually other 'companies' which are provided by the university with 'human resources'. The students on this 'business model' are nothing more than 'raw materials'. Just like the readers of magazines are actually only an audience to be sold to the advertisers - the real customers of magazine publishers. It is also overly negative as it buys into the whole customer-service provider model of relationship, as if it was the only one that exists. Universities do not have clients and are not service providers. They are educational and research institutions and forcing them into the simple commercial model 'flattens out' that which is special about them.

    As for anti-intellectualism, I heartily recommend Wolin, R. 2004: The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. He does a lovely bit of work showing how postmodernism can be traced back to fascist literati of the 1920s.

  2. While I appreciate your “call-to-(rational) arms” and agree generally with your position regarding academic freedom, I still find myself in a quandary. The problem is as follows: defense of rational thought and academic freedom, by definition, requires defending the right of ALL ideas to be aired and critically analyzed—including anti-intellectual ideas and superstitions. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true, and in fact, defending an anti-intellectual/superstitious idea requires defending only one narrow (often dogmatic) idea. Pragmatically, what can we, who wish to defend rational inquiry, do? History does not paint a good picture here—the history of natural selection of ideas, where ideas compete with each other for cultural/societal acceptance, is rife with examples where rational thought resoundingly lost (e.g., The Inquisition, The Holocaust). If predictions are correct (and I am skeptical that they are), the combination of environmental and economic crises will likely drive more humans to seek explanations and solace in anti-intellectual movements in the future (e.g., religious groups). I don’t mean to paint a “gloom-and-doom” scenario for rational thinking, but I do struggle on a daily basis to come to terms with the issue of defending the rights of those who wish to see my naturalistic worldview eliminated.

  3. I'm no constitutional scholar, but wouldn't academic freedom be covered (or at least explicitly not infringed upon) under the Ninth Amendment?

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Academic freedom isn't in the Constitution, but (according to the Bill of Rights) that doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

  4. Megaloptera

    "The problem is as follows: defense of rational thought and academic freedom, by definition, requires defending the right of ALL ideas to be aired and critically analyzed—including anti-intellectual ideas and superstitions. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true, and in fact, defending an anti-intellectual/ superstitious idea requires defending only one narrow (often dogmatic) idea. Pragmatically, what can we, who wish to defend rational inquiry, do?"

    I do not think this is a real problem although accept this is a common concern and not just in academia. I emphasized two parts of your quote. Taking the second first:
    1. As you say the reverse is not true and so academic freedom does not imply defending a single idea dogmatically (or single dogmatic idea).
    2. One can critically analyse not only any idea but the means to defend it.
    On the basis of (2) the defence of a single idea dogmatically (1) can and should be criticised as part of the defence of academic freedom.

    Remember that academic freedom and, more so, freedom of expression in general really means freedom to criticise - to be free respond to words with words and to be protected from violence or equivalents (such a loss of tenure). If there were no criticism and no-one to get upset by such criticism then no-one would have slightest concerns over freedom of expression.

    The concern over problem that you share with many others inside and outside academia is misplaced since the defence of freedom does not prohibit valid criticism of the means of protection of ideas, indeed academic freedom requires that such criticism should be encouraged and or, at least, not discouraged.

  5. A couple of things that I've seen at universities come to mind.
    One was in an experimental psychology class I took at UC Santa Barbara. The textbook "The Social Animal" was written by the prof. I didn't read the whole thing, but in what I did read, the author was psychoanalyzing every conservative political opinion imaginable, and concluding that they were all manifestations of dysfunctional psychology. I thought it was disgraceful, if this guy wanted to talk about politics he should have majored in polisci, not psychology. Fortunately for me, the course was actually taught by a grad student, and I had a great time learning about experimental psychology. The prof just showed up for one lecture, which the bozo spent entirely on telling us how bad capitalism was.
    Another was while I was teaching at a Catholic University in the Philippines. Some of the teachers there, born Catholic, had converted to Protestant, and would spend some of their lecture time telling the students how they would be better off as Protestants. Nobody ever got fired over this and I don't really understand why.
    I don't think professors have a right to spend lecture time discussing anything they please, they have an obligation to teach the subject matter of the course. As for speech *outside* the classroom, that should be free, but shouldn't it be for everyone, not just professors? I believe many campuses have anti "hate speech" guidelines that prohibit certain kinds of expression (Should Marxism be considered "hate speech" against capitalists and the wealthy?), I don't know if they make exceptions for tenured faculty.

    What is unacceptable punishment for offensive speech? There is currently a consensus that during the McCarthy era is was wrong for some people to call others "Communists". So is calling people nasty names when you don't like what they are saying unacceptable retaliation? What about names like "racist", "homophobe", or "anti-semite"? Generally the problem is self-correcting in the long term -- if people overuse a slur, it loses its impact, which is exactly what happened to "Communist" after the McCarthy Era.


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