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What “Academic Freedom” Means

July 24th, 2006 · 1 Comment

Holy hell, I agree with Stanley Fish, here writing on the controversy over a University of Wisconsin prof who peddles his pet theory that George Bush planned 9/11 to his students:

Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.

But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous). Rather, academic freedom is the freedom of academics to study anything they like; the freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis.


Thus the question Provost Farrell should put to [conspiracy-theorist prof] Barrett is not “Do you hold these views?” (he can hold any views he likes) or “Do you proclaim them in public?” (he has that right no less that the rest of us) or even “Do you surround them with the views of others?”

Rather, the question should be: “Do you separate yourself from your partisan identity when you are in the employ of the citizens of Wisconsin and teach subject matter — whatever it is — rather than urge political action?” If the answer is yes, allowing Mr. Barrett to remain in the classroom is warranted. If the answer is no, (or if a yes answer is followed by classroom behavior that contradicts it) he should be shown the door. Not because he would be teaching the “wrong” things, but because he would have abandoned teaching for indoctrination.

Tags: Academia



1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Grant Gould // Jul 25, 2006 at 7:43 am

    I can’t entirely agree with this sentiment, because the distinction between inquiry and politics is simply not real. In cases where a matter is politically “settled” but scientifically uncertain (questions of gender and race, for instance) or scientifically settled but politically uncertain (evolution for example) the very act of inquiry is a political statement.

    It is impossible to not make a political statement when asking certain questions — the statement that these matters are open to question. And because scientifically pursuing certain questions or accepting certain self-evident scientific truths is a political action, the professor is necessarily urging political action by the very act of teaching. And because of the nature of politics, every political action is a partisan political action.

    To imagine that academe is dedicated to some higher truth divorced from the lower truths of politics is naivete in the first order. To inquire, to educate, to learn is political action, and it absolutely is the job of professors to urge this political action.