Academic Freedom

Via Hit & Run, I see that academic freedom is under assault in Arizona once more. This time around, the Republican senate majority leader is proposing a bill that would, among other things, ban professors from endorsing "one side of a social, political, or cultural issue that is a matter of partisan controversy." Last year, the same senator proposed a bill to require professors to offer an alternate assignment to any student who might happen to find an assignment to be "personally offensive."

These sorts of things really irk me. As a good liberal (and a J.S. Mill scholar to boot), I'm pretty seriously committed to the principle of free speech. And as a former (and, quite possibly, future) academic, I'm fairly invested in academic freedom. Yes, academics do tend to lean to the left. And lots of them lean left in ways that irritate the crap out of me. Why anyone pays any attention to Foucault is beyond me, and don't even get me started on feminist science. And yet, as much as these sorts of inquiry bug me, and even though I think that they are a gigantic waste of time, I believe that universities would be much worse places were there not professors who waste spend their careers studying postmodernism.

I could go on, but I've done this once before already. And since I'm pretty naturally inclined toward laziness, I'm just going to quote myself. Plus, it's just fun to quote myself. It's like I'm important or something.

Look, the academy hasn't always leaned to the left. There was a pretty lengthy period in which universities were dominated by reactionaries, folks who decided that anything unorthodox really shouldn't be taught at all. These are the institutions that rejected Galileo, refused Hume a position on the faculty, banned Descartes, and resisted Newton. Why did some of the most respected universities in Europe act so stupidly? Because in each case those in charge decided that "the junk you teach is worthless, and besides that you don't teach, you preach. Begone!" Unfortunately, in each case, the worthless junk turned out to be, well, true.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not at all saying that I think there is a chance in hell that history will vindicate Marx or Lenin or that someday future academics will all look back and say, "How could 21st C academics have resisted the siren song of Derrida (sorry Jimi) for so long?" My point is that however strongly I feel that post-modernism is, to use a technical phrase, a gigantic pile of steamy crap, I don't have any way of knowing that to be true. It'll be bad enough if history records me as being on the wrong side of the post-modernist debate. Far worse if I turn out to be my century's equivalent of Cardinal Bellarmine.

This, of course, is Mill's point on On Liberty (you knew I had to be getting here sooner or later). Since we cannot really be certain in advance who is right and who is wrong, we really must permit all speech. In a university, an institution that is dedicated to uncovering Truth in all fields, however esoteric (or we were before the post-modernists showed up. Damn you French intellectuals!) , it becomes even more important not to censor open inquiry. Indeed, policies like tenure are needed precisely to avoid having professors who voice politically unpopular opinions from being run out of the academy. We need those opinions, even if we're sure that they must be wrong, if for no other reason than to force us to continue to defend our correct beliefs.

Do I think that there are a lot of really bad professors out there? No doubt. Are there a lot of professors who have tenure who probably should never have received it? Again, no doubt. Should we as a profession strive to ensure that those who preach rather than teach do not receive tenure at our institutions? Absolutely. Should we fire professors because we think that their conclusions are wrong? No way. Indeed, unless we allow free and open dissent, how will we even know which conclusions really are wrong?

Feel free to tell me why I'm dreadfully wrong about all this. Unless you live in Arizona, in which case you should check your local statutes first.

UPDATE: Academic freedom has to work both ways. If professors expect freedom to say what they wish (however silly or wrong), then they can't deny students the same privileges.

HT: Hit & Run

Share this