Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Academic Freedom "at Risk?"

An article in today’s Inside Higher Education, “Speech Restriction Draw Fire,” details a plan at Northeastern Illinois University to require protesters to submit copies of fliers and signs to administrators two weeks before they can be displayed on campus (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/12/23/speech). Back in September we learned that the University of Illinois has sent an email to all employees (including faculty) that forbade displaying bumper stickers or political buttons on campus unless they were non-partisan (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/24/buttons). A few weeks later the University of Austin was forced to rescind an order that no posters be displayed in students’ dorm windows, including campaign posters, after both Obama and McCain supporters with the help of the ACLU challenged the rule. All of this comes on the heels of David Horowitz’s continuing Academic Bill of Rights campaign to protect students from “liberal” and “radical” professors who are attacking our students with their sinister ideas.

These are just a few recent examples of attempts to undermine the academic freedom that we have fought so hard for over the years. We could add the various tenure decisions that have been questioned, the professors who have been reprimanded or fired for having unpopular or controversial ideas, the famous UCLA Dirty Thirty list, and countless other examples of schools that have fallen prey to the right-wing plan to clean our schools of “subversive,” read divergent or counterhegemonic, ideas.

When did ideas become so dangerous? This has certainly always been the case to those in power. From our earliest days, the control of information stands at the forefront of the war to control what we see, hear and think. As a World Bank draft report (2003) argued, “unions, especially teachers union, are one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.” This is the new conventional wisdom – teachers and, of course, teachers unions, undermine the central tenants of neoliberalism by getting people to, gulp, think about the world order and its logic and fairness. The progenitors of official knowledge want to delimit the available voices in the public sphere and continuously attack the last bastion of free thought and serious inquiry.

Faculty have generally challenged this call for censorship, as well as the false call for objectivity and neutrality. The minor successes of David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, however, show the ways in which colleges and universities have increasingly embraced the idea that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from radical teachers and their attempts to proselytize students. The situation in k-12 public schools is of course more tenuous, as calls for neutrality and politics-free curriculum seem to increasingly be the rule. From NCLB, Adoption Plans and scripted curriculum to positivism’s stronghold on educational research, we move closer and closer to the notion that education and knowledge are purely instrumental – a means toward the end of training, profits and a compliant, complacent workforce.

An interesting recent article from the New York Times, however, suggests that the power of professors to change their students’ minds is quite limited: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/books/03infl.html?_r=1&ei=5070&emc=eta1&pagewanted=print. The article cites three recent studies that find that professors have virtually no influence on the political ideas of their students. Parents, family and, to a lesser extent friends, are the major influence on politics ideas – particularly among the young. While schools once caused many students to rethink their ideas, this appears to be the case less and less (while many of my own student’s claim I awaken them to new ideas, and some do seem to really question their preconceived notions, few actually seem to change their general views on race, class, power, language, etc.) Why? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the stifling of real debate, the positivistic meme that has overtaken American scholarship and the popular idea that knowledge can even be neutral or apolitical.

Decades of challenges to this idea from history, anthropology, linguistics and political and social theory in general have appeared to go largely unheeded (at least outside the Ivory Tower). In my view, people tend to relate knowledge to their own experiences and the ideas that surround them throughout civil society. Schools are one of the few places where these questions are asked in a serious, critical manner (directive learning). And yet these spaces have been attacked so effectively in recent years that one wonders if the closing of the American mind is in fact inuring.

I believe our first responsibility as teachers, professors and educators at all levels is to open our student’s minds to the richness of knowledge and ideas. We must challenge our students to question not only conventional wisdom but their own deeply held beliefs – no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. This does not mean proselytizing them or making them think like us, it means giving them the tools to critically reflect on their own experiences and their relationship to the broader social, economic and political worlds in which they reside. If schools fail to provide this most basic aspect of learning, they do a disservice not only to students but society at large. As Dewey, Jefferson and Freire among countless others have argued, democracy depends on an educated, informed populace, with the freedom to explore divergent perspectives. I think we as professors should take this as a central charge and attack all efforts to undermine our freedom to explore knowledge in all its richness and diversity. This includes attacking the popular notion that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from it.

-- Richard Van Heertum


Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Richard,
I appreciate the power of your argument, though I am somewhat more skeptical. As such, several quick points.
First, I am dubious that there was ever a time when education actually did change the majority of minds of the young. Most analyses of students’ beliefs in fact find that it is mighty difficult to change one’s perspective on complex and contested matters (which is pretty much what educational policy and foundations is all about).
Second, I don’t think the conservative argument is about attempting to make knowledge neutral. Just the opposite. They use the rhetoric of neutrality to bring in their own perspectives. Stanley Fish has a nice analysis of this when he pointed out the “Trojan Horse” design of Horowitz’s agenda. (see here: http://chronicle.com/free/v50/i23/23b01301.htm).
Finally, I think you undercut your argument by offering a too-expansive version of what academic freedom constitutes. It is not the ability to have bumper stickers or the like. These are first amendment issues. Academic freedom is instead, and again I’m following Fish here, the freedom for academics to do their job. This becomes fairly complicated fairly quickly, but the key is not that we should rail against all perceived infringements (which would force us to defend indefensible positions); we should instead defend our freedom as academics to police our own boundaries of what we do as academics. As Fish states pithily (and a little vapidly), we need to do our jobs and not let someone else do them. (See here for Fish’s basic arguments: http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/tag/academic-freedom/)
Having said all that, I in no way disagree with your basic principle of education as a dangerous practice in that it forces us (as teachers and students) to consider and reconsider some of our most basic assumptions.

Richard said...

Thanks Dan. I agree. The call for neutrality is simply a call to end critique of the dominant discourse, which is still largely conservative in my mind, even after Obama's win. Fish is an interesting figure, who I've met, but I do think he is a proponent of this idea of keeping politics out of the classroom. He gave a presentation on this at Cornell a couple of summers ago and then reiterated the point when I brought it up with him afterwards. In my mind, the idea of "neutrality" and apoliticism in schools always serves those who are in power -- by disabling the tools of critique. I find an increasing myopia to new/divergent ideas across the political spectrum today though, and am worried about it's long term implications. As to whether college professors ever influenced their students, I'll simply say that one profoundly influenced my political ideas and college campuses were definitely one of the fulcrums of the 60s countercultural revolution.

Thanks for the comments.

Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Richard,
It depends what you mean by politics. When Fish is at his best, I tend to think he hits the nail on the head that partisan politics has no place in the college classroom. In this perspective, higher education has to be truly and totally amoral (which is different than immoral) since the fundamental purpose of higher education is the pursuit of truth. I read Fish in completely good faith on this one, as I see him putting forth the same pragmatist argument as Dewey and Rorty. To do otherwise, according to Fish, undermines what we do in the academy and ultimately negates our ability as scholars to be able to continue doing our job: which is to maintain as best as we can the peer-review function within interpretive communities of what counts as truth. I’ve written an essay review of Fish’s recent book (for a different audience, but still, I think, relevant) that addresses many of these points (http://danbutin.org/Butin_Review_Fish.pdf). I’m aware that Sherman has blogged about a different perspective than mine as well, so I know that I need to write this up more formally. And I'm not in any way negating the power of what we do as professors. It's just that the data tells a different story than the one we all too often attempt to justify to ourselves. Which, to me, suggests the need to constantly rethink and re-invigorate our teaching.

Best wishes,


Dan W. Butin said...

Hi Richard,

Funny, but this popped up in the Chronicle this afternoon: http://chronicle.com/news/index.php?id=5716&utm_source=pm&utm_medium=en

Anonymous said...

one of the main issues is that it said the right is trying to stop free speech. It is the left who plays big brother and controls our lives. If you want to make an argument for the right you shouldn't start the blog off with a college located in Chicago. A city where there is no such thing as "right" politics.

Anonymous said...

The first article says that the University's action may have been prompted in part by complaints from gay and lesbian students about materials circulated by a group of students who oppose homosexuality and that the University may be trying to lower the heat of discourse as a public safety nmeasure.

But you can't resist an opportunity to climb on your soapbox and blame these speech codes entirely on Horowitz and conservatives.

Richard said...


I largely agree. The idea that truth and politics can be separated is somewhat suspect to me though, as is the notion that amorality is possible in the classroom. I agree that we should avoid partisanship, but I do think it is important to offer students other perspectives that some would consider being "political." For example, can't we say it is constitutionally wrong to delimit who can get married? Or to discuss the implications of the end of Brown and what that means for equality of opportunity in America? I have always believed in questioning all my students ideas though, and opening their minds -- so I tend to avoid dogmatic arguments or empty critique of the right.

In regard to anonymous' comment, I agree that the left is also too often trying to limit free speech by blocking those who they disagree with from speaking on campuses. I have always believed in the notion that the first amendment is founded on protecting speech that we may dislike or abhor; not simply that with which we agree . . .