Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular.....
Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.
But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous). Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis....
In short, whether something is an appropriate object of academic study is a matter not of its content — a crackpot theory may have had a history of influence that well rewards scholarly scrutiny — but of its availability to serious analysis. This point was missed by the author of a comment posted to the blog of a University of Wisconsin law professor, Ann Althouse: “When is the University of Wisconsin hiring a professor of astrology?” The question is obviously sarcastic; its intention is to equate the 9/11-inside-job theory with believing in the predictive power of astrology, and to imply that since the university wouldn’t think of hiring someone to teach the one, it should have known better than to hire someone to teach the other.
I have said this:
It's conceivable that [Barrett] could still, as a teacher, present [the 9/11 conspiracy theory] neutrally, just as a university teacher on religion could teach the religion he believes in. My problem is that the teacher believes a crackpot, ridiculous theory and he's using a class on Islam to teach his theory. It's like being hired to teach astronomy and covering astrology and actually being someone who believes in astrology. I feel sorry for the students who think it's worth their time to engage with this material and to subject themselves to the power of someone who would believe something so nutty.So my problem is that belief in this conspiracy theory reveals such a defective mind that the teacher cannot be trusted, and that the factual truth of the conspiracy theory isn't properly taught in a course about Islam. That many Muslims believe the theory could be part of the course, but the inquiry should be into why they would be drawn into such beliefs, and a teacher who thinks the beliefs are true would not seem to have much grasp of the topic.
And I've said this, as a comment in the thread with the quote that isn't mine:
[A] test for the university will come when we see how it treats others in similar positions. What if we found someone hired to teach here was a white supremacist, planning to devote a week of his course to his theory? Would he be treated with as much respect as Barrett? What if we found someone hired to teach evolution was a young earth creationist planning to devote a week of his course to his theory? These people now must be treated the same. Pretty horrible. I hate to even type that out. But this underscores why the hiring phase matters so much.Back to Fish:
[T]he truth is that it would not be at all outlandish for a university to hire someone to teach astrology — not to profess astrology and recommend it as the basis of decision-making (shades of Nancy Reagan), but to teach the history of its very long career. There is, after all, a good argument for saying that Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante, among others, cannot be fully understood unless one understands astrology.
The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.I agree heartily right up to the last sentence. It is the responsibility of the teacher not to cross this line. But how is the administration to police it? Students may think a teacher is really pushing a viewpoint when he isn't, and a good teacher can sell his viewpoint without it showing. I could use the Socratic method in the law school classroom and only ask questions but have a position I'm hoping to ingrain. I could run a discussion in which I constantly take the opposite side from the one I want the students to adopt and do it in a way that I think will cause students to internalize the side I'm forcing them to defend. How could the administration find out? What would you want them to do about it? And what percentage of university professors do you think cross this line? You'd need a witch hunt if administrators got serious about Fish's line: "that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur."
And this is where we come back to Mr. Barrett, who, in addition to being a college lecturer, is a member of a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization with the decidedly political agenda of persuading Americans that the Bush administration “not only permitted 9/11 to happen but may even have orchestrated these events.”
Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.
Provost Farrell ... is too hung up on questions of content and balance. He thinks that the important thing is to assure a diversity of views in the classroom, and so he is reassured when Mr. Barrett promises to surround his “unconventional” ideas and “personal opinions” with readings “representing a variety of viewpoints."...
Rather, the question should be: “Do you separate yourself from your partisan identity when you are in the employ of the citizens of Wisconsin and teach subject matter — whatever it is — rather than urge political action?” If the answer is yes, allowing Mr. Barrett to remain in the classroom is warranted. If the answer is no, (or if a yes answer is followed by classroom behavior that contradicts it) he should be shown the door. Not because he would be teaching the “wrong” things, but because he would have abandoned teaching for indoctrination.
[A]cademic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.What Farrell did was to rely on the fact that Barrett "assured me that students will be free -- and encouraged -- to challenge his viewpoint," that "Barrett appreciates his responsibility as an instructor," and that "he will attempt to provide students with a classroom experience that respects and welcomes open dialogue on all topics." That is, Farrell accepts Barrett as a strong advocate for one side as long as he maintains an open debate in which the students can speak and argue with him.
Both Fish and Farrell stress process over substance. It's not a question of what subjects come into the classroom. (They ignore the process point I've made, which is that I doubt that administrators could stick to substance neutrality. Again: picture a teacher of white supremacy.) Farrell emphasizes the process of multiple viewpoints and debate. Fish emphasizes the process of academic inquiry and avoiding proselytizing. He would ask the teacher whether he could set aside "your partisan identity" and not "urge political action."
I wonder how far Fish means to take that. I've heard many law professors over the years say that since everyone is really partisan in some way, it's more honest to come right out and say what your positions are. They would portray Fish's ideal professor as a big sneak, posturing as neutral, but really slipping opinion in everywhere. Is Fish saying that professors who take the open approach are wrongly allowing their "partisan identity" to appear in the classroom? It would be terribly repressive for administrators to forbid that. Maybe Fish only means for the professor to refrain from "urg[ing] political action." If so, he's not saying very much. But Fish thinks he's identified a clear line:
The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.Is that a clear line? The more I look at it, the less clear it seems. It's quite subjective. Each of the last two sentences of his essay contains the phrase if the point is. How are we to tell what the teacher's point really is? A smart person with an agenda knows how to hide it.
UPDATE: From ACTA:
The Times' publication of this piece, written by one of the great old lions of the academic culture wars (recall that Fish chaired the English department at Duke during the years when it was making a serious bid to become the most politically and theoretically avant-garde department in the country), is highly significant. Perhaps the time has finally come for a national discussion about what academic freedom is, why it matters, what it protects, and, crucially, where its privileges end.Polonius writes:
[W]hat on earth is wrong with professors urging activism? Professors are the canaries in the coal mine; they're often the first ones to see what's gone wrong. If they don't urge activism, there's often no one who will.Similarly, in the comments here, Ben Wallace writes (and I've added links):
Fish argues that advocacy of ideas is the dividing line between legitimate and illegitimate speech in a university. This is an acceptable normative position but the position is inconsistent with academic freedom as practiced at the UW since the 1890s. Under Fish's standard, Richard T. Ely would have been fired, not defended, for advocating socialism and encouraging activism. Fish's position, if implemented, would undermine a long-settled standard of academic freedom by attempting to eliminate partisan advocacy of ideas.Is Fish's idea at odds with "The Wisconsin Idea"? If so and if Fish is right, we have a huge problem here.
ANOTHER UPDATE: Let me first say that by writing "If so and if Fish is right, we have a huge problem here," I mean to suggest the likelihood that Fish is wrong.
Southern Appeal writes:
[T]his is a bit of a strange argument for Fish, who has made his name (outside literature circles) by pressing the view that we can’t separate ourselves from our basic beliefs and that there is no neutral ground....
[T]here’s something to Fish’s distinction between “teaching” and “indoctrination” and in the idea that the classroom isn’t supposed to be a recruiting session for one’s pet projects, however noble they might be. But that doesn’t mean, I think, that teachers need to separate themselves from their views. ...
[T]he detachment model is deficient [because] it subtly teaches students that what smart people do when faced with controversial subjects is to take an air of detached neutrality, cooly surveying the various options, and declining to embrace any of them. My experience as a teacher has been that students don’t really like to get engaged in arguments over controversial subjects -- the detachment model merely reinforces that tendency.
This goes along with something Ben Wallace and I have been writing in the comments here. Ben says:
Under Fish's rule, a faculty member in the South in the 1950s could not embrace and urge the idea that segregation is wrong and that students should act to remedy the situation. The only thing that would be available to a faculty member in that situation [w]ould be dispassionate analysis of the benefits and costs of segregation and a discussion of the different arguments behind segregation. Allowing advocacy and urging students to engage all ideas has demonstrated more effective than efforts to create speech codes, which is essentially what Fish has come up with.I add:
[I]f the university required teachers to take this dispassionate, neutral stance, it would exclude a certain type of emotive, engaged person who actually is an excellent teacher. The drier, abstract folks would get more jobs in Fish's ideal university... and the students would get more... bored.
YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Jim Lindgren has a post titled "Astrology, Fish, Althouse, and 9/11 Conspiracy Theories." He's into the astrology subject:
I have actually been studying who believes in astrology. Some indices of conservatism use a belief in astrology as a measure of how conservative a respondent is. Yet Democrats are more likely to believe in astrology than Republicans, with the most conservative subgroup -- conservative Republicans -- being among the least likely to believe in astrology.That makes me want to remind you of this old post of mine from back when were were all talking about Jerome Armstrong (which may well be what prompted Lindgren's study). I have no idea what the politics of believing in astrology are. I don't see it as having anything to do with politics, but it has something to do with being unscientific. I think there are lots of unscientific folks out there, and neither party is completely anti-science or bound to science.