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CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2009

Surrendering Our Academic Freedom

By Jon Thompson

Save the World on Your Own Tıme

Stanley Fish. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008; 189 pp; ISBN: 978-0-19-536902-1, hardcover $19.95 us.
Stanley Fish purports to bring good news to the aca­demy — his gospel being that there is a simple way to prevent attacks on professors and their academic freedom by political extremists. Professors need only confine their discourse to “academicized” subject matter.1 They should not stray into worldly matters, such as questioning the established order, or preparing students to be engaged citizens. This is not their job, Fish says. If professors were to follow his advice, “the various watchdog groups headed by David Horowitz, Daniel Pipes, and others would have to close shop,” because the watchdogs no longer would have anything to complain about. The evidence for this out­come is that Fish has consulted with Horowitz and reports, “I believe him.”

In short, by surrendering to demands of extremists, the search for truth can flourish in a harassment-free ivory tower. However, the common experience is that giving in to extre­mists only encourages them. Worse, the Fish recipe would bring disaster to the academy and society at large.

This reactionary tract has the earmarks of neoliberalism — contempt for democracy, reliance on belief, disregard for logical consistency and misrepresentation of history. Although Fish makes a token attempt to distance himself from neo­liberals like Anne Neal, president of the “Lynne Cheney-inspired American Council of Trustees and Alumni” (another academic watchdog group), he presents a multi-page apologia for Horowitz. He tells us that Horowitz’s insidious “academic bill of rights”2 is “apolitical and principled.”

Presumably, readers should believe the shared penchant of ACTA, Horowitz and Pipes for publishing lists of names of alle­gedly dangerous professors also is apolitical and principled.

One need not self-identify as a neoliberal to be an exponent of neoliberalism or serve as its handmaid. The more neo­liberal measures former U.S. President Bill Clinton authorized, such as slashing programs for the poor, illegal acts of war and rescinding the Glass-Steagall Act, the more he was reviled by neoliberal extremists in Congress and the media. “It is one of the minor symptoms of the mental decline of the United States that Stanley Fish is thought to be on the Left,”3 but even a self-styled leftist such as Bernard-Henri Levy can be embraced by neoliberals as one of their own.4

Fish proposes that professors confine teaching to “bodies of knowledge” and “analytical skills,” with no discussion of current events. For example, a professor teaching military history should not “suggest parallels” with “(President) Bush’s conduct of the war in Iraq.”5 Universities should not encourage students to develop socially useful values or political awareness.

When he put forward this proposal on earlier occasions, it was dismissed as inappropriate and impractical for a democratic society.6 Undeterred, Fish tells us that, “worthies like Aristotle, Kant…and Jacques Derrida” are on “my side.” For their part, the worthies might have found surprising the asso­ciation with someone so casual about philosophical principles.

The book’s core consists of arguments that academic free­dom is best served by not exercising it, except in a narrow sense. The first decade and a half of the Cold War (often called the McCarthy era) in the U.S. provides many counter­examples. The more university administrators, faculty mem­bers and the American Association of University Professors surrendered institutional autonomy and academic freedom, the more widely the persecution spread.

Typically, the victims were doing precisely what, according to Fish, should have spared them from attacks by reactionary extremists: “saving the world on their own time.” For instance, mathematician Lee Lorch, a civil rights activist on his own time, was fired by Penn State for subletting his apartment in New York City to a black war veteran.7

The proposal that academic disciplines should be “academicized” would require abandonment of large parts of most fields and lead to stultification of the remainder. In particular, this would be the fate of the liberal arts, the main focus of Fish’s attention. It also would put an end to academic freedom as currently understood.

In disciplines where health or safety may be at stake, such as medicine or engineering, the topics are often inseparable from “real world urgency.” Codes of professional ethics, and the common law of torts, require academics in these fields to disclose to patients, clients or regulatory authorities information on significant risks they discover in their research. The fact that such disclosures have sometimes been met with extreme reactions by wealthy corporations — including attempts to destroy the careers of researchers whose findings might result in diminished corporate profits — cannot reasonably be blamed on the disciplines or the researchers.

Finally, there will always be topics that attract hostility from some quarter, regardless of how academicized the treatment is. For example, questions pertaining to the State of Israel bring strong reactions by pro-Israel extremists. This includes questions properly within the scope of liberal arts disciplines. Anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj took up such a question in her doctoral research at Duke University — “the role of archaeology in what was essentially a political project: the Biblical validation for Jewish claims to what is now Israel.”8 After her thesis led to an award-winning scholarly book, she was denounced in publications by organizations headed by Daniel Pipes. The denunciations led to demands that Columbia University deny her tenure.

Earlier Fish books have been criticized for erroneous assumptions and self-contradiction. This time his arsenal includes the neoliberal device of fundamentalism — reliance on a text from a golden age, taken out of historical context and misrepresented through selective quotation. He describes his proposal as “merely rephrasing the American Association of University Professor’s (sic) 1915 Declaration of Principles on academic freedom.” As proof, he quotes parts of three sentences from this 18-page document.

The document actually says the opposite of what Fish claims his selected passages imply. On teaching, the Declaration ex­pressly contemplates “giving instruction upon controversial matters.” It also contemplates an active public role for professors, asserting that, “in their extra-mural utterances,” professors should not be “debarred from giving expression to their judgments upon controversial questions,” nor should their “freedom of speech, outside the university…be limited to questions falling within their own specialties,” because: “One of its (the university’s) most characteristic functions in a democratic society is to help make public opinion more self-critical and more circumspect, to check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling, to train the democracy to the habit of looking before and after. It is precisely this function of the university which is most injured by any restriction upon academic freedom; and it is precisely those who most value this aspect of the university’s work who should most earnestly protest against such restriction.”9

This language is what would be expected in a declaration of principles by an association founded by such distinguished scholars and social activists as economist Richard Ely and philosopher John Dewey.

Academic freedom has waned and waxed in the U.S. since 1915, the periods of repression during 1917–1918 and 1945– 1960 (when anti-German and, later, anti-Communist frenzy gripped the land) alternating with more liberal times. The struggle by many scholars and administrators to protect this right has given rise to current circumstances with the concept enlarged and the freedom widely defended, although more effectively so in Canada due to the cross-country development of faculty collective bargaining by CAUT.

In our time, Columbia University is able to resist strong pressure from one of its largest donor communities and grant tenure to Nadia Abu El-Haj, and moral leadership in America emanates from such outspoken scholars as Noam Chomsky.

Jon Thompson is a University of New Brunswick professor emeritus of mathematics and statistics.

1. “To academicize a topic is to detach it from the context of real world urgency,” according to Fish.

2. Ellen Schrecker. “The New McCarthyism in Academe.” Thought & Action, Fall 2005: 103–118.

3. Terry Eagleton. “The Estate Agent.” London Review of Books, 2 March 2000.

4. Serge Halimi. “The Dom Perignon Socialist Manifesto.”

5. Stanley Fish. “An Authoritative Word on Academic Freedom.” New York Times, 23 November 2008.

6. Derek Bok. Our Underachieving Colleges. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

7. Penn State publicly denounced Lorch’s assistance to his fellow army veteran as, “extreme, illegal and immoral and damaging to the public relations of the college.” A. Fox. “Battle in Black and White.” New York Times, 26 March 2006.

8. Jane Kramer. “The Petition.” The New Yorker, 14 April 2008: 50­–59.

9. AAUP. General Declaration of Principles, 1915.