Monday, February 07, 2005

The entire blogosphere seems to be talking about Ward Churchill: the left, the right, libertarians, traditionalists--even this very blog. Churchill, in case you live in the Web equivalent of a cave, is a professor at the University of Colorado who wrote an article justifying in rather callous terms the September 11th, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. Similarly outrageous statements have been, as my co-blogger notes, fairly common in academia for quite a while. But Churchill had the misfortune of shooting off his mouth at a moment when the political tilt of universities has become something of a hot issue. For example, campus conservatives have gathered considerable momentum behind a movement to defend, in the name of "free speech", the expression of conservative views in academia. At the same time, plenty of conservatives have happily called for Churchill's firing, "free speech" notwithstanding. Meanwhile, as my co-blogger has also noted, leftists who are now rising to the defense of Churchill's rights were not nearly so quick to protect Harvard president Lawrence Summers when he made a few seemingly innocuous remarks about gender disparities in science. In short, there's plenty of hypocrisy to go around on this matter.

Of course, as I have pointed out before, the whole business of "free speech" on campus is (pace my co-blogger) pernicious nonsense. A university isn't a democracy, it has no powers to imprison, and it has not only a right but a positive duty, under all sorts of circumstances, to punish speech that is not even offensive or outrageous, but merely factually incorrect or of insufficient academic quality. One can, after all--I would hope--be denied tenure, refused a faculty position, expelled from a graduate or academic position, or denied admission in the first place, merely for saying things that are mistaken, poorly expressed or badly reasoned (in the judgment of the current faculty) in examination or assignment papers, class presentations or job interviews. In such an environment, talk of "free speech" is simply ludicrous.

Why, then, is it so common? It's certainly not protecting unpopular speech on campus. As my co-blogger has pointed out, a combination of powerful social and professional pressures more than suffices to make universities among the most mind-numbingly conformist institutions in North America. And on both sides of the political aisle, as I mentioned above, free speech rhetoric is routinely understood to apply "for me, but not for thee"--that is, it is deployed exclusively in the defense of ideas with which one agrees, and dismissed as inapplicable, for one reason or another, in the case of ideas with which one disagrees.

No, the real reason for all the "free speech" rhetoric is that it's the last-ditch defense of choice for those ensconced in an academia that (as I never tire of pointing out) suffers from a complete lack of societal consensus or internal understanding regarding its proper goals and purposes. Some parts of it, to be sure--medical schools for instance, or engineering faculties--are in fact quite clear on their mission. (Unsurprisingly, these are also the parts of the university least plagued by controversies over "free speech".) Liberal arts institutions and departments, however, are almost entirely bereft of purpose. They face little external pressure to teach job skills (as in the professional schools), nor to inculcate a particular mandated set of beliefs in their students (as in traditional religious colleges), nor to make practical contributions to the nation's well-being through their research (as in scientific and technical departments). They are simply left entirely to themselves to decide what they consider worth doing and teaching--knowing that whatever they decide will matter not one whit to anyone, most likely including themselves.

And so, not unlike modern poets, many modern academics simply pick an agenda--perhaps political activism of one sort or another, perhaps social climbing, perhaps mere job preservation--and dress it up as serious work. When challenged, they hide behind mutually contradictory justifications: their important role as guardians of the standards of their field's great masters; their right and duty to break with those same past masters, and invent their own standards; the impossibility, in the end, of defending any standards. And when all of these sophistries are played out, they fall back on the very last refuge of the useless sinecure-holder: "free speech".

Consider arch-free speech defender Eugene Volokh, defending academic freedom: "Who benefits from academic freedom? Well, if you like this blog....then you do". In other words, without academic freedom, Eugene Volokh might conceivably not be able to indulge quite so freely in his hobby of ranting at his readers over the Internet, while the government of California continues to pay his comfortable salary regardless of what he says. And why shouldn't they treat him the way any other (say, private) employer would? Because, he says,
university professors are supposed to do a good job by saying what they think is right, even when that's offensive or alienating to people. Such an ability to express highly controversial views, even views that many people find deeply offensive, is critical for the effective functioning of universities as institutions.
Now, that's simply false. By "saying what they think is right", university professors may be doing a good job, or a bad job, or an indifferent one--but the criterion is certainly not whether they are being frank. A convinced creationist can be a brilliant evolutionary biologist, publishing groundbreaking ideas which he or she deeply believes to be sorely misguided. Indeed, for all we know, Eugene Volokh himself believes that the US Constitution, properly read, demands a Marxist egalitarian "dictatorship of the proletariat" for America. And that's fine, as long as he teaches his classes a more conventional interpretation of the same document. A professor, in short, does not do a good job by saying what he or she thinks is right, but by saying what the experts in his or her field consider to be right--that is, to be correct and creditable by the standards of the field.

Of course, Eugene Volokh knows this full well, and I have no doubt that when he's not having fun blogging about his son and his gun hobby, he's working hard at UCLA, adhering rigorously to the standards of his chosen field, the law. But what if there are no standards in one's field? When we read about a Ward Churchill, or a Joseph Massad, the topic inevitably turns to "free speech", or some variation thereon: the right of the professor to say what he pleases, the right of other professors with opposing views to say what they please, the right of the professor's students to say what they please. That's because in their respective fields--"Ethnic Studies", "Middle Eastern Studies"--there are no standards under which any of the participants can be criticized for saying whatever they please. There are only political opinions, personal and group loyalties, and positions of power to defend. And because it's embarrassing to admit that they're merely protecting their sinecures, salaries and soapboxes, they instead set themselves up as martyrs to the cause of "free speech".

Here's a modest proposal: instead of fretting endlessly about the "free speech" of politicized professors or their opponents, why not require--as, say, Lawrence Summers did of Cornel West--that professors in all fields demonstrate their value through scholarship and teaching of genuine academic discipline and substance. Moreover, we could demand that entire fields themselves demonstrate their value to society, in terms of concrete contributions to its well-being. Those that cannot convince their university administrations that they are worthwhile could then be safely eliminated from academic faculties, and their professors pensioned off.

If, as a result, fewer Professor Volokhs feel safe blogging their opinions--well, you know what they say about opinions. (And there are plenty of hungry young bloggers ready to fill Volokh's shoes, and willing to endure less glamorous jobs, or accept professional circumspection in their postings, or, if necessary, post anonymously, to lure his readers away.) On the other hand, the cold light of pragmatic scrutiny would surely spell the end of many, perhaps most, of academia's Ward Churchills and Joseph Massads. All it would take is consensus agreement that their supposed right to propagandize on some university's dime need not be preserved at all costs, in the name of "free speech".

1 comment:

Dan Simon said...

Steve, academic standards obviously can never be perfect,and they will always occasionally allow garbage through, for reasons of fashionability, ignorance or corruption--as your examples attest. But that's an argument for trying to make standards as rigorous and demanding as possible, not for throwing up one's hands and letting ignorance, fashionability and corruption run rampant.

You're completely correct that in many ways today's tenure system is similar to the patronage system of Galileo's day. But that's hardly a compliment. The patronage system didn't protect Galileo from the Church, or Mozart from poverty, or Machiavelli from exile. On the contrary, it bestowed most of its largesse on the most willing and eager sycophants, completely irrespective of their scientific or scholarly merit. Many of today's university departments work on similar principles. Why you're defending them is a mystery to me.