November 24, 2008

Academic freedom -- it's probably not what you think it is, says Stanley Fish.

"[A]cademic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs."

Oh, hell. Why don't we restate all our freedoms this way? Practical policies, recognized only to the extent that they serve the purposes we embrace as a society.

16 comments:

Dan said...

I don't believe in academic freedom. No academics should be free. The rest of us should chain them to their desks and make them teach us interesting stuff for free.

rhhardin said...

Academics are paid, so you get to list the freedoms; it's part of the deal when you sign on.

Citizens have a lot more latitude owing to restrictions on government, such as still exist.

Meade said...

Tolling for the bullied ones, on their nerdy, seeking trail
For the lonesome horny citizen, just trying to get some tail
An' for each pragmatic, slave professor in ivory-towered jail
An' we blinked upon the chimes of academic freedom flashing

Bob R said...

Well, like academic freedom, most of the "freedoms" we have on the job site are spelled out in exactly this way - as practical policies that benefit the company (e.g. as perks that are used to attract good workers or practices that keep workers healthy, alert, focused, and motivated). Why are academics so prone to confuse their job with civil society?

spool32 said...

Isn't that the basic argument against ownership of a firearm?

Joe said...

"Academic freedom" is largely an excuse to implement tenure, which is one of the most absurd things in our society.

wyatt gwyon said...

Well, what's your definition, Professor? Can you, for example, refuse to teach a topic in Con Law that the rest of the faculty wants you to teach?

Tibore said...

"Responding to an expressed concern that liberal faculty too often go on about the Iraq War in a course on an entirely unrelated subject, Finkin and Post maintain that there is nothing wrong, for example, with an instructor in English history “who seeks to interest students by suggesting parallels between King George III’s conduct of the Revolutionary War and Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq.”

But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch’s conduct of his war would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush’s conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?

Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting."


That I can agree with.

Tibore said...

And now, to post something on topic:

"Why don't we restate all our freedoms this way? Practical policies, recognized only to the extent that they serve the purposes we embrace as a society."

I don't know. Part of me is disturbed by the notion defining rights as originating from practical, rather than philisophical concerns. I think I'd need time to work this thought out, but my knee-jerk response to that notion is that defining rights via practicalities dilutes the notion of rights, as practicalities can dictate infringements and outright reversals of rights. I look at totalitarian governments rationales for suspending rights as illumination of this point.

Then again, in the real world, practicalities do have an effect on rights. I can't come up with many good examples of this being acceptible right now, even though I know many exist. But my point is that a definition of rights that relies solely on philisophical underpinnings is (pardon the phrase) likely impractical, despite my negative reaction towards the idea.

When I'm over my flu and off the cold medicine, I'll revisit this and try to make more sense.

Crimso said...

"an excuse to implement tenure, which is one of the most absurd things in our society."

I'll gladly surrender my tenure as long as I'm compensated for it. I'll go back to yearly contracts, but they'll have to triple my salary (which is what would happen if I worked in industry). I had to do what amounted to a seventeen (yes, 17) year apprenticeship (11 yrs as a student, 6 yrs as a post-doc) to be a viable candidate for the position I now hold. I would have never ever considered taking this position for the salary I was offered if I didn't have the ultimate prospect (which entailed another 5 yrs of shutting up and doing what you're told for fear that your "colleagues" would take offense at some slight, real or perceived, and vote against renewing your contract) of tenure.

Steven said...

Why don't we redefine all freedoms this way? Because, foundationally, we believe in the existence of natural rights, inherent in the person and identified by philosophy, and inhere in all men equally.

But not all men have the same jobs, so the degree of special job-related privileges they are given have differ, solely so they can carry out their job functions.

Accordingly, Congressmen have legislative immunity, professors have academic freedom, reporters in many states have shield laws, lawyers/doctors/clergymen have various forms of communication privilege, ambulance drivers can run red lights under specific circumstances, firemen can ignore trespassing laws to fight fires, etc. None of these have any philosophical imperative behind them; they are all merely practical solutions to practical problems.

As denying the privileges to people who aren't members of the professions named aren't violations of natural rights, neither is denying them to members of those professions . . . even if it is of great practical importance that the privileges be allowed.

save_the_rustbelt said...

Fish is a legend ---- in his own mind.

Revenant said...

Oh, hell. Why don't we restate all our freedoms this way? Practical policies, recognized only to the extent that they serve the purposes we embrace as a society.

You mean kind of like we've been doing with property rights, freedom of speech, and the right to keep and bear arms for the last hundred years or so?

blake said...

Academic freedom is a theory, or the expression of a theory.

The theory goes, "We allow teachers wide latitude so that students can be better taught. We don't try to shield students from unpopular ideas in order to get them to think and be able to both challenge and defend ideas."

But, of course, the screening process for who gets tenure makes sure that the "wrong ideas" are not held by professors in the first place. And instead you have abuse all geared toward reinforcing the same political viewpoints. Far from allowing challenging ideas to be spoken freely, tenure is now a way to do whatever you feel like to promote "social justice".

(Not everywhere by everyone, of course.)

IOW, application of the theory has failed to our considerable detriment. Maybe it's more important to address that than to quibble over "academic freedom" like it was something endowed by our Creator.

Cedarford said...

Fish - "It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs."

Althouse - Oh, hell. Why don't we restate all our freedoms this way? Practical policies..

Agree with Althouse. This reminds me of the arrogance of Jonathan Alter when he said that the Internet should be free discussion with only a mild "guiding hand" by Gatekeepers (such as the puffed-up Alter Himself) who could best guide topics and discussions to the best benefit of all.

Stanley Fish has been sometimes a powerful advocate of academic freedom and against speech codes and for student's rights to self-expression...but he is also the person that helped build Duke University's academic departments as citadels of Groupthink and intolerant of their views be questioned by other Faculty in the name of "academic freedom" - there is "correct" academic freedom at Duke, and "incorrect" as in questioning the wisdom of 88 professors denouncing innocent Duke students in the Rape Hoax. And refusing to apologize for it, and holding out the "tenure sledgehammer" to stifle dissent from what Fish might call "The proper views needed by the English Dept, Woman's studies, Romance Lit, and African American Studies Depts to do their proper job..."

Rob said...

Should "Academic freedom" extend to anything that is said by an academic? Would you consider a 1 hour political diatribe by a Physics professor a proper expression of "Academic freedom"?

As I understand it, academic freedom meant that as long as someone is pursuing knowledge within their particular field of study then they shouldn't be punished if they happen to come to unpopular conclusions.

Of course, we saw how far "Academic freedom" takes you when you suggest something like the fact that there may be physiological differences between men and women...