Saturday, February 11, 2006

Academic Freedom, again
I wrote a post below on Academic Freedom, and Dan has posted a response to it. This is a response to Dan's response.

I will defend myself against Dan's charges of hypocrisy below but I'll
begin with a discussion of issues of more general interest.

1) What is "academic freedom"?
Dan complains that my definition is too recent, and that we should stick with an older definition. The first definition he offers is, "the premise of academic freedom was that academics should not be constrained regarding the ideas that they express in their work". I alluded to this definition briefly in my post. It seems to me that this notion makes little sense, since "the ideas they express in their work" are precisely what academics should be constrained on.

Dan then suggests (what seems to me to be) a different definition: "academic freedom was intended to protect scholars ... from external pressures -- particularly governmental censorship." As nearly as I can tell, this definition corresponds to my notion of "academic freedom of the university" (rather than within the university). This notion is well-defined, as long as we don't consider the issue of government funding, or giving tax breaks to, universities. Under this notion, for example, Bob Jones University would be free to do push its religious agenda, and Harvard University would be free to discriminate against students for being the wrong color or against army recruiters for discriminating in their own ways. The problem comes in when the government is expected to give funding or tax breaks, but in a way that respects "academic freedom", and then it's hard to figure out what the thing means. A similar problem arises when we discuss "artistic freedom" in the context of government funding of the arts. A similar problem arises in my definition when we discuss funding of a department within a university, and I have little to say about this. My definition implies, however, that funding of student groups should be done in a content-neutral way.

From now on, I will stick with my definition.

2) Should there be academic freedom within universities?
Dan thinks it is arbitrary to have academic freedom in universities and not elsewhere, and he thinks that in any case it is a bad idea. One reason he thinks it is a bad idea is because it leads to professors gratuitously pushing their politics in class. I agree this is not a good thing, and I'll discuss it more below. He also implies that academic freedom leads to professors neglecting their proper work and speaking politics instead. I doubt this is true, but in any case, professors should be judged according to how well they do what they are supposed to do, not according to how much time they spend doing other stuff. I suspect that Dan has a day job, and doesn't feel that writing on the internet (blogging) makes him a worse employee. I do agree that to the extent that all "time" is well-defined as being either company time or private time, politicking should be done on private time. As far as anonymity goes: sometimes a political writer is writing on a topic within his expertise, and then it would be good to write as an authority; other times it would be better to be anonymous; sometimes the expertise and the politics mix, and then it's not clear. Some people are such craven cowards that they write anonymously no matter what.

But what's so special about universities? Here is an example. Does Dan think it is at all possible that an employee of Google or Microsoft or Yahoo would be able to say, as I have, that nearly all that is written on the subject of women in information technology is nonsense? Would this employee be able to openly say this, in his own name, in a forum that many other people actually read, without being fired? Wouldn't it be good if someone who comes from IT can be able to openly say such things? Universities should be such places. If they are not, let's try to fight to change them, rather than complain that academic freedom is, at the moment, working quite poorly and therefore shouldn't exist at all.

3) Am I a hypocrite?
Dan implies that my suggestions are merely self-serving, that I only want academic freedom for those whose views I share, and that I support affirmative action for such people. However, I explicitly said I do not support such affirmative action ("the goal is not that we should discriminate on the basis of feminist views, but rather that we should not"), and the single "whistleblower" I want on each hiring committee would not have the power to cause such action. Furthermore, I have made sufficiently many statements on this blog and in private, including support for the academic freedom of the disgusting Ward Churchill, that Dan should know I am consistent in this matter. I would not object to my department hiring the Princeton prof I wrote about (assuming
he doesn't spend too much time proselytizing in the classroom), even though his political statements (linked to) on his web site make Ward Churchill look reasonable. I also supported FIRE's support for the academic freedom of Sami Al-Arian, even though I hope he will be convicted of terrorism (and even though I won't mind if he is executed).

4) What about gratuitous politics in the classroom?
I tried to make it clear that (except in the most extreme cases) I don't support the most direct and obvious way of dealing with this problem because I believe it will lead to less academic freedom, not more.

5) Should Elvis-sighters be "welcome" in my university?
Absolutely, and I expect they are a lot more sane than most of the people who are here now. In fact, I think Elvis-sighters would be good balance against all those who believe eyewitness accounts of gunmen on the Grassy Knoll, or of a guided missile hitting the Pentagon. I don't think that any supporter of freedom of speech believes that all speech is equally good, and I certainly don't. Free speech is necessary in order for good speech to be allowed, and for ultimately reasonable public discussion to take place. Reasonable discussion can take place, even if Scientologists and psychics are also allowed to speak; people can choose who to listen to. But they can only choose if speaking and listening is allowed. (I discuss the issue of speakers and listeners getting together here.)

6) Why are most universities so extreme-left dominated?
Dan thinks it's because of "rigorous multi-year winnowing", and gives no credence at all to my theory that is just might be related to conscious, brutal suppression (in most universities) of anyone who says anything opposed to the extreme left. I'll let the reader decide.

7) What would be the result if universities were places where all views could be expressed?
What if newsrooms were populated by a broader class of people, including many reasonable, moderate people? I take the idealist view that this would result in many people with extreme views becoming more moderate. I gave no evidence for this and Dan gave none against it. In fact this is the contrapositive of a widely held view that when like-minded people get together and become isolated, they gradually become more extreme.

I consider this to slightly support my view. Everyone seems to agree that major newspapers are recently very eager to avoid impressions of liberal bias. (There's some disagreement on how successful they are.) Why is there this sudden eagerness? It's not because of diversity in the newsroom, but it is because of diversity on the internet. This is a very new phenomenon, and it is at least somewhat positively affecting newspapers. Note: CBS did not have to respond to internet sites claiming it is a Venusian conspiracy, but they did have to respond to criticisms of those "memos". Reason and good writing is very powerful once people can write and be read. Of course, our universities remain largely internet-immune.

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