Academic freedom and the purposes of universities

(Reflections on a talk by Stanley Fish)

by Patrick Colm Hogan

Academic freedom is an important concept in the United States. Indeed, it is a concept fundamental to our system of higher education. The basic idea of academic freedom is that the purposes of universities are not served if faculty members are intellectually subservient to state or religious doctrine or to public opinion. For example, if physics has to conform to the beliefs of Stalin or biology has to conform to the dictates of Hitler, then neither field will advance intellectually. Academic freedom is therefore of particular concern to faculty who are to some degree at odds with standard views — a point of relevance to philosophers for change, wherever they happen to be located.

Stanley Fish, Davidson-Kahn Distinguished University Professor of Humanities and Law at Florida International University College of Law and Floersheimer Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, is one of the most prominent public intellectuals in the U.S. academy today. He became prominent decades ago for his work as a reader response critic. He was widely seen as providing a way of “democratizing” literary study by placing the meaning of texts in the readers. This is a bit misleading, since democracy presumably means that members of the community have a right to have a say in what the group does and to contribute their opinions on what the relevant facts may be. That is quite different from saying that their opinions actually determine the facts. But reader response criticism was widely seen as radically democratic for the latter reason.

Recently, I heard Fish give a talk on “Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution” (University of Connecticut, 21 September 2012). This is presumably a standard talk, as he is a popular speaker. It will eventually be part of a book. The gist of the talk is that academics demand an excess of freedom due to their radical political beliefs, but that there is no justification for that demand. One of the main antagonists in Fish’s presentation was Henry Giroux, a regular contributor to this website. The implication of the talk is that academic freedom should not be radical, but radically limited. Fish’s recurring example is an American professor, William Robinson, who compared the Israeli siege of Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto in an email to students. Fish suggests that censuring that professor should not be considered a violation of academic freedom. In short, Fish’s main claim is a variant of a standard criticism of the U.S. academy. The criticism usually comes from right-wing political commentators outside the academy. But when it is voiced by a member of the academy — and a member known for a certain sort of (putatively) democratizing theoretical radicalism —  that criticism is likely to have greater force.

Before going on to Fish’s arguments, I should remark briefly on my sense of Fish as a person. I have been a critic of Fish’s work since my first publications. But Fish has always been thoughtful and generous in his interactions with me. More significantly, when he was director of Duke University Press, he gave a home to — and, indeed, supported — my book, The Culture of Conformism: Understanding Social Consent, a left-wing book that (judging from Fish’s recent talk) must have been incompatible with his political views. Thus, in my experience, Fish himself does not have any particular desire to suppress views that run contrary to his own.

Fish’s analysis of academic freedom begins with a sensible point. Since academic freedom is justified as a means of achieving the goals of the academy, then one needs to begin with an understanding of just what those goals are. Indeed, understanding the goals of the academy is arguably a more important task than understanding academic freedom. If nothing else, it is a more general concern. In any case, both topics bear on the purpose and possibility of radical philosophy.

Fish quite reasonably sets out to present a typology of academic goals as a basis for treating academic freedom. But here, I believe, his analysis falters. Moreover, it falters in such a way as to prejudice the case against a broad understanding of academic freedom — and particularly against a liberal or left wing understanding. I will first outline Fish’s categories, then turn to an alternative typology.

Fish begins his typology with the most minimal case. This is the view that sees being a professor as “just a job.” Fish presents himself as perhaps the sole representative of this school of thought. That is a somewhat melodramatic employment of the situation, presenting Fish as struggling alone against the academic mainstream. In fact, this is probably a fairly common position. Moreover, as articulated by Fish, it fits with much right-wing ideology today. But, of course, Fish is free to use whatever rhetorical techniques he wishes to make his case more convincing (needless to say, this essay is not free from its own rhetorical techniques). The more important point is that this is a fundamentally reasonable category.

Specifically, Fish argues that discourse in higher education may or may not be “academicized.” “Academicize” is a peculiar term. Initially, I did not understand its use. But Lalita Hogan explained to me that Fish is playing off of the verb “politicize.” It is a common leftist contention that we need to politicize our research. Fish is saying that, rather than politicizing, we need to academicize. More importantly, by “academicized,” Fish seems to mean something along the following lines. A discourse is academicized to the degree that it is rendered rigorous in keeping with professional standards in the relevant discipline. Part of “academicization,” in Fish’s view, is that the researcher does not decide on his or her conclusions beforehand. This is, of course, different from anticipating certain results. What is excluded here is deciding the outcome, no matter what the research shows. Though Fish did not enter into this in the talk, the relation to academic freedom is clear. Constraints on academic freedom — such as those in the Stalin and Hitler examples — operate in part to determine results beforehand.

There are several problems that arise already at this point. Two are particularly significant. First, if the purpose of academic freedom is to advance knowledge, then it seems misguided to limit the discussion to the results of a particular research program. At the very least, it would seem that the very same issues concern the topics of research and the methods of research. For example, suppose our research on energy production is limited by energy companies — for example, a nuclear energy company. Well, clearly, the nuclear energy company would only pay researchers to study the topic of nuclear energy. More generally, such companies would constrain research to forms of energy production that can be engaged in for corporate profit (as opposed to forms of energy production that may be controlled by the individual user, presumably after an initial investment, or those that might be undertaken by a democratic government). If our goal is to advance knowledge of energy production, then clearly such constraints on the topic of research are deleterious. This is true even if the corporations are honest about the results of specific research programs. Thus, at the very least, Fish’s minimal category — better termed “epistemic” — requires expansion from freedom of results to freedom of topics and methods.

A second issue that arises in this context concerns the scope of academicization — what I would call the rigorous pursuit of scientific method tailored to the topic under investigation. Fish cited the Robinson case in connection with this. He claimed that Robinson’s comparison of Gaza with Warsaw and Robinson’s related contentions were not academicized because he presented them as conclusions in the email, not as objects of debate. This is a peculiar conclusion. It is certainly possible that Robinson simply decided beforehand that Gaza was like Warsaw, that he did not research Gaza or Warsaw but assumed the comparison. But Fish presented no evidence of this. He only presented the (plausible) claim that Robinson did not pose his conclusions as a simple possibility, equal to others, when he presented them to his students. But that is relevant only if Fish is requiring that professors always academicize.

Specifically, one can engage in academicization — rigorous critical examination of hypotheses — in different contexts. One context is research; another is the classroom. Fish’s complaint about Robinson suggests that academicization should always occur in both contexts. In other words, Fish implies that it is irrelevant if Robinson engaged in research before reaching his conclusions. It is only relevant that he presented those conclusions to his class without opening them to further academicization in the classroom. I can imagine someone advocating such a radical view. Indeed, Paolo Freire at least sometimes seems to suggest such an approach (though without proposing punishment for those who do not follow this double academicization). But Fish made clear that he himself routinely presents the conclusions of his research in his classes. There was no reason to infer that he invariably academicized those conclusions.

Of course, teachers should always be open to learning from their students and it can always turn out that apparently well-established conclusions are overturned. But it would be impossible to proceed with any sort of classroom teaching if every class began with Cartesian doubt. For example, how could I ever make any advance in teaching narrative theory if I told my students, “Free indirect discourse may mean . . . , or it may not. What do you think?”; “Free discourse may be opposed to tagged discourse, or maybe not. What do you think?” And so on. In literary study, we would probably object to teaching in which nothing was “academicized” — thus, in this context, opened for discussion — in the classroom. But it is self-undermining to require that everything be open for discussion in the classroom. Moreover, insofar as our goal is advancing knowledge, then it would seem that the key area of academicization is research, rather than pedagogy. Thus the requirement of academicization most obviously occurs in research. At least in his talk, Fish did not even touch on this in the Robinson case.

I should perhaps note that, while the siege of Gaza was horrible, I find the analogy of Nazi policies to Israeli policies to be seriously misguided. Israeli policies seem to follow usual principles of self-interested colonialism. Nazi extermination policies were qualitatively different from the self-interested colonialisms of Britain, the U.S., France, and other countries, including Israel. But academic freedom is not confined to claims (or analogies) one happens to agree with.

Fish’s second category continues with the basic criterion of evaluating academic freedom by reference to the goals of the academy. This second category views the purpose of the academy as advancing the common good. Fish identified this as the position of the American Association of University Professors. As such, he linked it with the mainstream view of professors across university disciplines. Rhetorically, he connected this with professors seeing their work as not “just a job,” but as a “vocation.” He explicitly linked the idea of a vocation with divine calling. The purpose was, of course, to undermine the validity of the idea of a vocation. With non-religious listeners, it did this by associating a putatively secular activity with religion. With religious listeners, it did this by suggesting that professors illegitimately put themselves in the place of religious leaders. But, again, Fish is free to use what rhetorical flourishes he wishes. The key point is that this is a sensible division. For some, the main purpose of the academy, thus the main purpose of academic freedom, is advancing knowledge. For others, both purposes concern the common good. The only difficulty with this category is that it is overly broad, as we will discuss below.

Fish’s third category shifts criteria. It concerns, not the purposes of the academy, but the status of professors. This is the category of “exceptionalism,” according to which, professors are somehow special people and thereby exempt from ordinary principles. There are three problems here. First, this exceptionalism can only operate in association with a justification in terms of goals. As far as I am aware, no one has argued that academics should be exempted from general law because they are ubermenschen. Any exceptionalism here necessarily is bound up with what purposes academic work may be understood as serving. If academic work serves to advance knowledge and ordinary restrictions on research would inhibit the advancement of knowledge, then those ordinary restrictions should at least be subjected to special scrutiny or, conversely, require further justification. The idea is by no means absolute. No sane academic would demure from laws preventing Nazi-like experiments involving cruelty. But the first presumption would simply be that ordinary restrictions — for example, a business-world restriction that a discovery should produce short-term profit — should not simply be applied to academic work. This is the only sense in which academic freedom is “exceptionalist.”

The mention of short-term profit leads to the second problem with this category. Fish seems to assume that the business world defines normalcy and anything that deviates from the business world results from demanding an exception. However, it is not obvious that we should take the business world as the standard. For example, if university faculty members have unusual job security, that does not necessarily entail exceptionalism. To the contrary, one may argue that, relative to any reasonable norm, corporations tacitly invoke exceptionalism in giving so little job security to their employees. A similar point applies to creativity, individual autonomy, and knowledge. Why not say that the exceptionalism involves businesses claiming that they can constrain the pursuit of knowledge by reference to producing profit?

Finally, Fish gave an example of what he had in mind — the legal case of Urofsky v. Gilmore. Somewhat simplifying, we might summarize the case as follows: Some professors in Virginia challenged a state regulation that, with some qualifications, prohibited the use state computers for sexually explicit material. As Fish phrased the claim, it did initially sound like exceptionalism, since part of the challenge appealed to academic freedom. But the relevance of academic freedom to this issue concerns what academics do — the sorts of research they undertake and the necessity of freedom for that research. The whole problem would have been solved if the regulation simply constrained the use of public equipment to work-related purposes. After the lecture, someone in the audience said that he had been in Virginia at the time. He was doing research on representations of gay sexuality. He had to seek permission to do this research and felt that it created a hostile environment. Fish more or less dismissed the point. But it is germane. Having to seek permission to study gay sexuality is stigmatizing, and stigmatizing in a way that is potentially threatening to gay men (who may always reasonably worry about homophobia). As such, it is almost certain to inhibit the free pursuit of knowledge. In short, this does not show exceptionalism. It is actually a case of infringing freedoms that bear on the pursuit of knowledge, thus the professionalism that Fish was putatively supporting. (I should note that this is a separate issue from the constitutionality of the Virginia statute. The law might infringe aspects of academic freedom, but those aspects may not be constitutionally guaranteed.)

In his fourth category, Fish returns to the main axis of differentiation — the purposes of academic work. This category is critique. He cites Judith Butler as a representative of the critique-based view of academic freedom. He quotes some comments of hers on how it is important not to accept standard beliefs, which often represent the crystallization of prejudice. Whether Butler is referring to the pursuit of disciplinary knowledge or the improvement of society, what seems clear is that Butler’s comments actually fit with the prior justifications. They do not belong to a new category at all. They merely represent a different view of that category. Butler considers some statements about sexuality to be correct and earlier academics generally believed other statements to be correct. But both would justify their academic freedom by reference to pursuing that validity. (Perhaps Butler would not call it “validity,” or class it as knowledge, but the point remains fundamentally the same.) In this way, then, the fourth category (like the third) is actually not a new category at all.

The same point holds for Fish’s final category — revolution. He maintains that some academics invoke academic freedom in relation to revolutionary goals. His example here is Henry Giroux. It is undoubtedly the case that Giroux wishes to change society through the academy. I do not know whether he justifies academic freedom by reference to that goal or not. However, if he does, then that is only a case of justifying academic freedom by reference to the common good — though, again, his idea of the common good may differ from that of others who would invoke this ideal.

In sum, there are really two categories here, not five. There is the justification of academic freedom by reference to the advancement of knowledge and there is the justification by reference to the betterment of society. Note that these are two plausible goals for academic/educational work. Both appear reasonable. In contrast, Fish’s categories present us with a deteriorating sequence of options. The first seems sane. The second — which sees academia as a (perhaps divine) calling or vocation — is somewhat utopian. The third (exceptionalism) extends the idea of a calling to make professors appear delusionally pompous. The fourth and fifth — explicitly linked with leftist politics — appear to comprise wholly new and entirely unjustified claims for academic freedom.

What then is the difference between the apparently reasonable position advocated by Fish and the putatively problematic position of, say, Butler — since both could be understood as justifying academic freedom by reference to knowledge? To understand this, we need to explore and expand the rather minimal and undeveloped typology that remains from Fish. Specifically, we need to draw some further distinctions both within and across types.

We might begin by returning to the advancement of knowledge. The first and more usual sense is that the advancement of knowledge is the advancement of what is understood professionally about the topic under investigation. The second sense of “advancement of knowledge” is a matter of dissemination of knowledge. Thus the former falls into what we usually call “research” while the latter primarily concerns teaching. Similarly, there are two ways in which the category of social betterment could be understood. The first involves the betterment of society as a whole. The second concerns the betterment of that particular part of society that is our charge as teachers, which is to say, students. These two points suggest that we in fact require a threefold division in the objects of concern that serve to justify academic work. The first is knowledge per se; the second is students; the third is society more broadly. Each object defines its own set of goods. Academic freedom may in principle be justified by reference to any of these goods. One is likely to have a somewhat different conception of academic freedom depending on which category one favors. Moreover, in each case, there will be serious and consequential disagreements about the nature of those goods even within a category. Indeed, the disagreements within a category are probably more significant than those across categories.

First consider the advancement of knowledge. One common view is that professional standards have been painstakingly established and these need to be protected against the state, religion, or other orthodoxy. Lest this seem an inherently right-wing view, note that this is the view that champions evolutionary theory against creationism or global warming against “global warming skeptics.” At the same time, there is a common view that dogmas congeal even in the most rigorous disciplines and that advancement requires freedom even from professional doctrines. This problem is already significant when one is speaking of purely abstract matters. It comes to be more pressing when it concerns political issues. Feminist challenges to an androcentric canon of literary masterpieces are an obvious case of this sort. On the other hand, it is important to recognize that this too is not uniformly progressive. The common right-wing view that the Humanities have become dogmatically leftist fits here as well. The key point is that there is a division between those who take professional standards as well and rightly established, and those who do not. Indeed, almost everyone who reflects on the issue will fall into both camps. However, not everyone will agree on which parts of professional results, topics, or methods should be accepted and which should be changed. Thus Stanley Fish and Judith Butler could both justify academic freedom on the grounds of advancing knowledge, and nonetheless disagree with one another on most details of that defense. The principle is nonetheless the same in the two cases.

The betterment of students is no less complex, though for somewhat different reasons. There are different views of just what constitutes bettering our students’ lives. The most obvious form of betterment is preparing them for a career. The standard alternative is giving students general intellectual training for life. The difference here is fundamentally that between professional training and liberal education. The value of liberal education is a separate issue and I will simply assume that most people debating academic freedom agree that both professional training and liberal education have value. Professional training seems to have the usual professional requirements for academic freedom — the ability to train students in professional topics, conclusions, and methods, without interference from the state, etc. This holds for one view of general intellectual life as well. However, as in the case of advancing knowledge, it is always possible for someone to take a dissident stance with respect to the common wisdom of a field. Indeed, the point may be more general. One might argue that the advancement and dissemination of knowledge require continual creativity. Creativity is almost always stifled by the ossification of insights into dogmas. Even in the most rigorous sciences, it is almost certainly the case that currently well-established theories will be revised, perhaps even discarded, in the future. Thus in a way it does not really matter what one’s attitude is toward current professional views. One may agree with them whole-heartedly while still recognizing that they should not be taken as the final word. In this view, the best way of training students for a general intellectual life after college is by training them to think critically, challenging received opinions.

So here, again, we might find Fish and Butler — since Fish seemed to have as much concern with disseminating knowledge as in advancing it. Here, again, we see that the two follow the same principle, but with different views of the nature of professionalism and the proper response to professionalism. Or, rather, they do not even have different views on the profession. Both undoubtedly accept some aspects of standard professional views and challenge others. Fish’s rhetoric suggests that he is accepting professionalism. But in fact he is rejecting a great deal of what is professionally standard in our profession.

I have been speaking of the betterment of students’ lives in purely intellectual terms. However, many educators believe that they should shape the values of their students as well. Specifically, there is a common view that education should serve to make students better members of society. There are, of course, differences here as well. However, making students into better members of society generally means training them to improve society. Thus the differences in this area are most often a function of differences in one’s views on bettering society.

The third category — roughly, Fish’s category of the common good — involves internal differences as well. We may divide these into differences in target, epistemic differences, and normative differences.

By differences in target, I mean, differences in just what defines society. What defines society may seem straightforward, but it is not. Fundamentally, there is a difference between those who see society as encompassing humanity generally and those who see society as confined to some identity group — today, commonly the nation. This is a division that obviously comes into play when there are issues of academic freedom and national loyalty. But the division is not entirely simple, since we tend to define groups by reference to prototypes or putatively standard cases rather than by reference to necessary and sufficient conditions. Here, again, political differences enter, but they are not as straightforward as one might initially assume. It may at first seem that identifying society with humanity is good and identifying it with the nation is bad. But one might understand the nation by reference to the impoverished and exploited majority. In contrast, one might understand humanity primarily through the prototype of a cosmopolitan literary elite. Here, as elsewhere, differences within the category are probably more consequential than those across categories.

Epistemic differences are fairly straightforward. These concern just what sort of knowledge is considered valuable for the betterment of society. When people ask about the value of knowledge, they are commonly understood as referring to use. Socially valuable knowledge, in this view, is useful knowledge. This is commonly opposed to the liberal education view, according to which (in the common view) value should not be equated with use. But this characterization is only partially accurate. In fact, it seems that everyone agrees that knowledge should be useful. Differences come in the nature of the use. It at least often appears that the word “use” is taken up as shorthand for “use in establishing material superiority of the individual or group.” In other words, it appears most often to mean individual use in material self-advancement over others (e.g., in getting a better job than those without the knowledge) or collective use in material advancement of the in-group (e.g., the nation) over out-groups. This is why, for example, use for critically understanding the differences between popular will and state policy just is not considered use. Here we may return to Fish’s talk. In the discussion period, one audience member explained that he teaches a course in analyzing political rhetoric. In that course, he and the students critically examine presidential speeches as well as the limits of the press in fact checking. Given his presuppositions (which I happen to share), he was fostering socially useful knowledge. Fish objected. His reasons were, however, unclear, since one might have thought the project of critical analysis of presidential speeches would have justification as part of the advancement or dissemination of knowledge. The point here is that it could also be justified in terms of use for the common good. In any case, we see once again that we have a plausible category with great diversity and contradiction within the category — a very different situation from that depicted by Fish.

Finally, there are norms. What does it mean to say that one should better society normatively (as opposed to epistemically)? There are various ways of organizing differences in this category, but a simple and important division may be made in terms of accomplishments and flaws. Presumably everyone agrees that society has both accomplishments and flaws. But some people seem to find the first more salient, while others seem to find the second more salient. Those for whom accomplishments are more salient are likely to advocate preserving the achievements of the past and extending their scope. Those for whom the flaws are more salient are likely to advocate criticizing the past and changing traditions.

Here, as elsewhere, one may be tempted to see one form (“The heritage of the past is good”) as right-wing and one form (“The heritage of the past is flawed”) as left-wing. However, political divisions are not that simple. Political divisions manifest themselves in different ways depending on the precise object of concern. The point may seem banal, but it is important. In the U.S., political progressives are not necessarily more likely to criticize the past and the political right is not necessarily more likely to celebrate it. Rather, they will select different aspects of the past to criticize or celebrate. Thus one group may celebrate the constitutional separation of church and state while another will celebrate the right to bear arms.

In short, in contrast with Fish’s typology, it seems that treatments of academic freedom and the value of universities do not form a sequence of increasingly extreme views, with a sensible, conservative view being taken up and progressively distorted by liberals, leftists, and radicals. Rather, there are three quite ordinary categories of value at issue, all defining plausible purposes for higher educational institutions. However, these categories do not provide uniform principles for academic freedom because they are not understood in a uniform manner by all their advocates. Moreover, the conceptual subdivisions of these categories (e.g., in the knowledge category, the subdivision between those that accept standard disciplinary methods and those who do not) do not simply map onto political preferences. Rather, political disagreements operate at a more particular level. In short, the university does not comprise a set of sensible professionals in struggle with an evidently non-professional group of “tenured radicals” (in Fish’s phrase). Rather, the left and right (and others) are distributed throughout the various options. In this way, philosophers for change are not at the extreme end of a spectrum. They are part of all the goals and all the subdivisions of those goals. Their radicalism differentiates them in particular cases (e.g., what to critique in contemporary society and how to do so), not in large categories (such as supporting or not supporting social betterment). In this respect, Henry Giroux is no more conceptually marginal to debates over academic purposes and academic freedom than is Stanley Fish (though, of course, Fish’s views are far closer to the political mainstream of the U.S. today).

A final point is worth making in connection with these issues. Fish pointed out that a person could fall into more than one of his categories. But he still seemed to assume that one is likely to prefer a single category. Moreover, his talk seemed to presuppose that an advocate of one position would want everyone else to follow that preference. This brings us to a sort of meta-principle, a division across divisions. It does seem to be the case that many people want uniformity. Thus I sometimes have the sense that advocates of radicalizing students really want everyone, at least everyone in the humanities, to devote themselves entirely to radicalizing students. However, many of us also value a diversity of approaches within the university. Personally, I value advancement of professional knowledge, furthering of education, and the betterment of society. I am most likely to try to pursue the first. But I am happy that colleagues are more intensively devoted to the second or third. Moreover, I value a range of approaches to each category. Rather, than a single position, many, perhaps most of us actually have a much more complex view of the ideal university, a vision in which as many goods are pursued.

Of course, here too there are many possibilities for just how such a system would be specified and facilitated. For example, my (obviously utopian) vision of a plurality of values does not make a place for corporate involvement in university research. Part of the problem here is the same as the problem in U.S. elections — the influence of capital is no less constraining than state or church orthodoxy, even if it is constraining in a different way. In any case, the variety of pluralistic visions of academic values indicates once again the complexity of the values at issue — their conditions, manifestations, compatibilities, contradictions, and so on — and their irreducibility to a linear scale. It would also seem to indicate the importance of maximizing academic freedom — in part so that we can dispute precisely what such maximization involves.

[Thank you indeed Patrick for this insightful essay]

The writer is a professor in the Department of English and a faculty member in the Program in Cognitive Science at the University of Connecticut.

If publishing or re-posting this article kindly use the entire piece, credit the writer and this website: Philosophers for Change, philoforchange.wordpress.com. Thanks for your support.

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