Academic Freedom to…Be an Asshole?

March 11, 2009

Are Academics Different?–Stanley Fish Blog, New York Times, 2/15/09

The response many would make to this accusation is that a teacher’s responsibility is to the ideals of truth and justice and not to the parochial rules of an institution in thrall to intellectual, economic and political orthodoxies. “Democracy,” insists G.Tod Slone (No. 228), “clearly depends on … professors willing to risk career for truth and integrity.” Academics, in this view, exercise freedom only when they subject the norms of the institution to a higher standard and act accordingly. They must, says mattm (No. 247), “retain the right to ask the question of what constitutes academic freedom — without any deference to the interests of the university whatsoever.” Here, nakedly, is the reasoning I attributed to Rancourt: 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; indeed I am obliged by academic freedom to do so.

It would be hard to imagine another field of endeavor in which employees believe that being attentive to their employer’s goals and wishes is tantamount to a moral crime But this is what many (not all) academics believe, and if pressed they will support their belief by invoking a form of academic exceptionalism, the idea that while colleges and universities may bear some of the marks of places of employment — work-days, promotions, salaries, vacations, meetings, etc. — they are really places in which something much more rarefied than a mere job goes on. John in Boston (No. 229) declares, “Your first move to say that the professor was hired to perform a job is evidence enough to prove that you don’t understand education; it is not a path that leads in a certain direction,” and certainly not a direction mandated by an administrative hierarchy.

One sees from this and similar statements that an understanding of academic freedom as a right unbound by the conditions of employment goes hand in hand with, and is indeed derived from, an understanding of higher education as something more than a job to be performed; rather it is a calling to be taken up and followed wherever it may lead, even if it leads to a flouting of the norms that happen to be in place in the bureaucratic spaces that house (but do not define) this exalted enterprise. If that’s the kind of work you think yourself to be doing, it follows that you would think yourself free to pursue it unconstrained by external impositions; you would think of academic freedom as E. Mucemn (No. 67) thinks of it: “Ultimately, academic freedom is nothing different than the freedom of human mind, as immense as the size of the universe.”

The alternative is to understand academic freedom as a much more earthbound thing, as a freedom tailored to and constrained by the requirements of a particular job. And this would mean reasoning from the nature of the job to a specification of the degree of latitude those who are employed to do it can be said to enjoy. This is Finkin’s and Post’s position: “Academic freedom is not the freedom to speak or teach just as one wishes. It is the freedom to pursue the scholarly profession … according to the norms and standards of that profession.”

Statements like this are likely to provoke the objection that “Academe should not be a Business or a Corporation” (No. 228, G. Tod Sloane). But that is a fake issue. Saying that higher education has a job to do (and that the norms and standards of that job should control professorial behavior) is not the same as saying that its job is business. It is just to say that it is a job and not a sacred vocation, and that while it may differ in many ways from other jobs — there is no discernible product and projects may remain uncompleted for years without negative consequences for researchers — its configurations can still be ascertained (it is not something ineffable) and serve as the basis of both expectations and discipline.

Once again we see that the argument for academic freedom as a right rather than as a desirable feature of professional life rests on the assertion of academic exceptionalism. What I have been trying to say is that while academic work is different — it’s not business, it’s not medicine, it’s not politics — and while the difference should be valued, academic work should not be put into a category so special that any constraints on it,whether issuing from university administrators or from the state as an employer, are regarded as sins against morality, truth and the American Way.

It’s not a license to be rude. It’s a vcommitment, an obligation.

I have to shit or get off the pot.


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