Wednesday, January 25, 2006

On the subject of "academic freedom", my co-blogger, LTEC, is of the opinion that--well, actually, he has numerous opinions on the subject, most of which I disagree with. I will try to address them one by one.

  • "Within the University, the most important thing that Academic Freedom means is that no member or job applicant is discriminated against because of his views, unless those views interfere with his work." Well, it's generally considered a Good Thing--in theory, at least--not to discriminate against employees in any workplace on the basis of their "views". In practice, though, people are discriminated against on the basis of their views all the time, if their views are sufficiently bizarre or extreme. They are also discriminated against if their demeanor is too unpleasant, their appearance too plain, their attire too dishevelled, their manners too boorish, or on the basis of any number of personal traits that do not directly affect their job performance. In vocations that involve close collaboration--and academic professorship certainly is one such--discrimination of this type is particularly common, and widely condoned as necessary for "group morale", "unit cohesion", or (in academia's case) "collegiality".

    Where, then, did the idea come from that academics should have a special dispensation from the conformist pressures that affect every other occupation? Originally, in fact, the idea of academic freedom had nothing to do with extraneous personal traits such as political views. Rather, the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work. An academic, once accredited (i.e., tenured), should, according to the principle of academic freedom, be able to conduct and disseminate his or her research irrespective of what views it may implicitly or even explicitly contain.

    Of course, the point of academic freedom was never to protect academics from the conformism of their colleagues. On the contrary, academic freedom has always gone hand in hand with "peer review"--the idea that a scholar's work is to be judged solely by his or her colleagues. Instead, academic freedom was intended to protect scholars whose work had gained the acclaim of their peers from external pressures--particularly governmental censorship.

    Over time, academics in America have gradually intermingled the idea of academic freedom with a particularly American notion of "free speech", under which everyone is in some sense free to say (or to loudly proclaim the right to say) absolutely anything to anyone at any time, for any reason, without fear of retribution. The result: a reinterpretation of academic freedom as the untrammeled right of academics to speak uninhibitedly about anything outside of their area of scholarship, at any time.

    I can see nothing whatsoever to commend the application of this expansive notion of free speech to the academic world. As LTEC attests, it certainly doesn't protect academics with unpopular views from ostracism. Rather, it allows academics to neglect the scholarship they were hired to pursue, and instead to exploit the platform of their position by pontificating at length to anyone who will listen--and to students who often have no choice but to listen--on subjects about which they are manifestly ignorant. This abuse of the professor's lectern has in fact become so common that even those who rail against it--such as LTEC--only think to complain about its political lopsidedness, rather than its overall pernicious effect on the serious pursuit of scholarship. Perhaps if scholars were obliged to conduct their non-scholarly ranting, political or otherwise, on their own time, outside their workplace, and without invoking their irrelevant credentials--anonymously, on a blog, perhaps--the quality and volume of scholarship conducted at universities would improve somewhat.

  • "Unfairness can involve unfair grading, not allowing students to voice their opinions, lack of presentation of alternative views, and gratuitous imposition of political opinions." ....Or demanding work, favors or even sex in return for grades. Or failing to teach--or teach clearly and effectively--the appropriate course material. Or evaluating students too harshly--or too leniently. Or any number of other things. Horrendously bad teaching is endemic in academia, and most of it has nothing to do with politics. Why are the particular forms of bad teaching that involve political bias of such interest to LTEC, and to (primarily conservative) critics of academia?

    Often, when someone focuses on a specific minor injustice, to the exclusion of large classes of related ones, it's because the intended solution is not to remedy the injustice, but to counterbalance it--that is, to favor the allegedly wronged person or group. Thus, those who focus on racial discrimination in academic admissions neglect the obvious solution of hiding, where possible, information about the race or sex of applicants, and instead advocate the granting of special preferences to the groups allegedly discriminated against. Similarly, the obvious solution to politically motivated descrimination in university teaching would be to crack down on gratuitous expression of political views in academic settings. But LTEC has a different solution in mind:

  • "I propose that the State should insist that every hiring committee have at least one anti-extreme-left person on it." I've expressed my views of "affirmative action" (i.e., quotas for certain politically blessed groups) so many times that I don't think I need to say more about the indefensibility of this proposal here. But in addition to justifying the many forms of quotas he despises, what outcome could LTEC possibly even hope to achieve with it--apart, of course, from an externally mandated boost in the number of professors who happen to agree with him?

  • "Imagine what would happen if the university were more like the real world, with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time." Actually, opinions in most real-world environments are pretty uniform, since the demographic composition of most real-world environments is also pretty uniform. University environments are even more uniform than most, since they consist primarily of academic scholars, a rather exclusive class of people who have been selected by a rigorous multi-year winnowing process that has marked similarities across disciplines. Moreover, as I've mentioned repeatedly before, a university "with all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" would be very different from the traditional academic institution, where opinions on a large number of topics--those on which scholarly consensus has been achieved--are expected to be uniform, and those who express contrary views are denounced as "bad scholars" and denied academic credentials.

    Then again, I don't believe that LTEC really wants "all kinds of different opinions being expressed all the time" at universities. Claims of evidence for paranormal phenomena? Scientologist dogma? Sightings of Elvis? There's a reason, after all, why LTEC has proposed an "anti-extreme-left" representative on every hiring committee, and not an "anti-Elvis-is-dead" representative on every hiring committee. And the reason isn't hard to figure out.
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