May the Best Idea Win

New book argues that students involved in campus protests over controversial speakers or ideas should instead support a marketplace of ideas in which all notions are heard and the best rise to the top.

April 8, 2016

There’s no shortage of criticism of what’s been described as the student censorship movement, which has included banning (or at least student demands to ban) controversial speakers, discussions and art from colleges and universities. The latest critique, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge (Palgrave Macmillan) comes from Britain, which has seen its own set of parallel events on its campuses. But author Joanna Williams, a senior lecturer of higher education at the University of Kent and education editor at Spiked, rebukes students in Britain and the U.S. (and their professors, from whom she says they’ve learned bad habits) in equal measure.

Ultimately Williams proposes a model of academic freedom as a “marketplace of ideas” in which even the most contentious proposals must be aired for truth or consensus to be achieved. Everyone -- even climate change skeptics -- gets to participate in the discussion, regardless of his or her expertise, point of view or privilege.

“Knowledge must be open for everyone to challenge,” Williams says in Academic Freedom.The advantage of a marketplace of ideas is that the best, least refutable ideas will win out no matter how often they are contested by whom. The assumption that some knowledge is incontestable contributes towards a culture of conformity in universities.”

Academic Freedom is sure to offend some readers and invigorate others (especially those who already see today's students as a politically correct mob). Williams participated in a written Q and A with Inside Higher Ed. Here’s an edited version of the discussion.

Q: You argue that academic freedom has been perverted by some in academe to mean affording voice to those who historically have been denied one at the expense of others’ voices. What is the true purpose of academic freedom, in your view?

A: To me, academic freedom is really just about affording scholars all the same rights to free speech as people have in society at large. Where academic freedom should go a step further is in affording protection to people who speak out against their institution or the norms within their disciplinary community. Such extra protections are necessary to allow knowledge to advance.

Of course, this does not mean that everyone has an equal right to be heard, or even equal access to platforms such as publishers and the media. This is not nice and we might wish it were otherwise. However, in order to allow more diverse voices to be heard, we need more academic freedom, not less. Restricting speech to privilege some voices above others requires passing a judgment on who gets to speak based upon their viewpoint or their identity -- and putting this precedent in place is disastrous for all scholars.

Q: You also argue that academic freedom has been twisted by some to shut down broad debates on topics from rape to climate change. Should there be any limits to academic freedom, in your view?

A: Personally I don’t think there should be any limits to academic freedom. Of course, in practice, many countries around the world restrict speech through laws against hate speech or Holocaust denial, and universities have to keep within the law. Other than that, though, I really think nothing should be off-limits.

To me, the idea of placing some issues beyond discussion in a university -- the very places that should be most suited for free and robust debate -- is just bizarre. This doesn’t mean I think all ideas are equally valid or equally deserving of a place on the curriculum. But I do think it is incumbent upon academics to put before students knowledge and perspectives they will find challenging or [that] may even make them feel uncomfortable. This is how learning takes place! Outside of taught classes universities should hold debates on all manner of topics with speakers from all political persuasions invited. Academics should lead by example in demonstrating to students how engaging in arguments can be a positive experience -- you can learn how to hone your own arguments, or you might even change your mind.

Q: Related to that, you say you disagree with scholars such as Stanley Fish, who propose a more limited version of academic freedom for professors in their classrooms or suggest that faculty members should stick to the subject matter. At the same time, you disparage some lecturers who swing the other way and share all their political views with their students (at least when those views support limits on academic freedom). How should scholars approach discussions about controversial topics with their students?

A: I think university students are adults and there is no need for professors to deny they have political views of their own. However, I think problems arise when professors use the lecture theater as a soapbox or as a pulpit -- as an opportunity to preach a political position rather than teach a subject. This becomes a significant problem when all the academics in a department or in a discipline share a political stance -- the students only ever hear one perspective. It also becomes a problem when academic knowledge is itself written off as ideology or an expression of a power relationship. In this way, students are denied access to the knowledge they need to make up their own mind on a particular issue. I think it is vital that universities pay as much attention to the intellectual diversity of faculty as they currently do to ensuring representation according to gender and ethnicity. With a politically and intellectually diverse faculty, it is less of an issue if professors share their views.

Q: Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity has some choice words for the students who have in recent years sought to ban controversial speakers, discussions, art, etc., from their campuses. But you blame their censorship largely on their instructors, from whom you say they have learned. Is that fair? Some instructors, at least in the U.S., now say they’re afraid of their students, and are self-censoring because of them.

A: I think many academics are looking on in bemusement, or indeed horror, at this generation of censorious students. But I think academics need to engage in a far more honest debate about where such students have got their ideas -- and their tactics -- from. Of course higher education does not operate in a vacuum -- and students do not arrive at university as blank slates. There are lots of different things going on here.

Too often nowadays students arrive at university having led quite sheltered lives and having been protected from discomfort. In many ways I think childhood itself has come to be equated with vulnerability. This carries over into universities. Young adults are treated as if being a student is in and of itself enough to make them vulnerable and in need of special protection. The campus comes to be seen as a safe space with infantilizing therapeutic interventions such as petting zoos. Students do not expect -- and ultimately are not able -- to deal with things that threaten their fragile sense of self.

These same students are often taught in the classroom that language is all powerful in constructing reality -- that words can wound -- in a way that goes beyond rhetoric that can upset us, move us and stir our emotions but actually to inflict psychic harm or real violence. When students who have come to see themselves as vulnerable are taught that language and images can threaten their identity, then the desire to ban is understandable.

Academics who are afraid of their students need to enlist the support of their colleagues in creating a university culture that is about learning through intellectual challenge rather than an entitlement to protection from discomfort.

Q: Like many scholars, you say the Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement is antithetical to academic freedom. Can you explain why?

A: I think the BDS movement and its popularity with academics really provides a very useful example of how lecturers take a lead in demonstrating to students that the best way to deal with people or viewpoints you do not like is through not engaging and restricting debate. I find it baffling that BDS supporters want greater freedom for Palestinian scholars yet they seek this through limiting academic freedom. To me this is the equivalent of arguing for intellectual freedom by burning books.

BDS forces judgments to be passed on who gets to take part in scholarly activities based on their nationality, their viewpoint or the institution they work for. Making participation in scholarship contingent upon such factors is fundamentally antithetical to academic freedom. The idea that it is not individuals who are targeted by BDS but institutions is dishonest -- conference attendance, travel and research all require substantial funding, and scholars as individuals do not have private sources of revenue. I think BDS proponents need to be honest in calling for censorship. The idea that BDS is a campaign for greater freedom is disingenuous.

Q: What significant differences exist between academic freedom in the U.S. and the United Kingdom, both historically and legally?

A: I think there are some significant differences between the U.S. and the U.K., but what is surprising is that, despite this, many of the same trends occur in both countries. Legally, the biggest difference is obviously the fact that the U.S. has the First Amendment. This means there can be a legal challenge if free speech or academic freedom is restricted on campus. In the U.K. we don’t have this to fall back upon, and so winning the argument for free speech depends far more upon changing people’s minds than taking people to court.

Historically, there has never been a group like the American Association of University Professors in the U.K. with its declaration of principles concerning academic freedom. Academic freedom in the U.K. has historically been far more of an informal agreement between the professoriate and government ministers. This worked relatively well when universities were elite institutions and state funding was plentiful. Now higher education has been transformed and those informal arrangements are no longer enough to protect academic freedom.

I think the status of academic freedom in the U.K. is very much wrapped up in the perceived purpose of the higher education sector. The more higher education is considered instrumental to a range of social, economic and political objectives, the less reason there is for government ministers to defend academic freedom. The onus is on faculty to defend academic freedom, but the problematizing of academic freedom that has taken place and the view that it is just a means for the elite to further their own interests leaves faculty less able to do this.

Q: What’s wrong with critical theory, in your view, and how has it limited academic freedom?

A: The problem with critical theory is that it sets in place the political trends that underpin so much of the identity politics we see today and provides an intellectual justification for the practice of censorship. It teaches that all knowledge is inherently political and reducible to power relations. If this is the case, then there is little need for students to learn anything that arises from outside of their own identity group. It teaches that words and images are all powerful in constructing reality -- and that to change words and images will effect changes upon the way the world is. For example, racism can be challenged by showing positive images of black people, sexism can be challenged by swapping pronouns in children’s books. This teaches students the antidemocratic and unrealistic notion that banning certain words or pictures can make the world a better place. At the same time, critical theory also promotes a relativism. Nothing is more worth knowing than anything else. This means the necessity for academic freedom, to challenge existing orthodoxies and contest truth claims, is done away with.

Q: You said that scholars often don’t care about academic freedom until they need it-- such as when they’ve come under fire for offensive speech, etc. What does a better, more proactive approach to academic freedom look like?

A: I think a more proactive approach to academic freedom requires scholars to defend views that we disagree with -- as well as just views that confirm our existing beliefs. Currently, certain campus bans garner a great deal more anger than others. So, for example, in the U.K., the petition to no-platform feminist academic Germaine Greer was met -- thankfully -- with a great deal of outrage. However, when students have sought to ban a tabloid newspaper, The Sun, that carries a picture of a topless woman, little has been said.

Defending academic freedom means defending views we find reprehensible. A proactive approach to academic freedom demands scholars challenge themselves and their students through consistently seeking out views they disagree with. The academy needs to place a far higher value upon intellectual diversity than it does at present. If days go by without faculty confronting a view they wholeheartedly disagree with -- and preferably sharing it with students -- then they are doing something wrong!


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