The Edge of Academic Freedom

Scott McLemee reviews Joan Wallach Scott's Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom.

February 22, 2019
 
 

A number of years ago, when state legislatures began to pass bills requiring high school biology classes to teach "intelligent design" as if it were a scientific theory, I suggested that the moment had come for the Flat Earth Society to establish a committee on curriculum reform.

Now I regret the joke, which, with hindsight, was obviously tempting fate. The data-analytics firm YouGov released the results of a public opinion poll last spring showing that 16 percent of the country's voting-age population has at least some reservations about the idea that the world is round. That figure rises to 24 percent for those in the 25- to 34-year-old age bracket -- and to 32 percent for the 18-24 cohort. The percentage of the adult population agreeing to the statement "I have always believed that the world is flat" is just 2 percent -- but again, that percentage doubles for respondents between 18 and 24.

More recently, The Guardian reported on a paper by Asheley Landrum, an assistant professor of science communication at Texas Tech University, based on interviews with 30 participants at flat-earth conferences in 2017. Nearly all of them had come to reject the idea of the earth as a sphere within the previous two years, after watching YouTube videos. (The Guardian states that Landrum presented her findings earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. In fact, the paper was given at last year's meeting held in Austin, Tex.)

Over the next decade, a member of Congress or two may demand an investigation into the National Science Foundation's failure to support flatness-paradigm research. (Where does the sun go at night?) In the meantime, it's a given that a student will sue for discrimination after receiving a failing grade for a geography term paper in which all the evidence comes from YouTube documentaries. I would not be shocked to learn that this has already happened. If not -- well, the semester is young.

It will be the full flowering of what Joan Wallach Scott criticizes in Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom (Columbia University Press) as "the increasing tendency to treat academic freedom as synonymous with free speech and with the unfettered right of a student to his opinions in the classroom." The author, who is professor emerita at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, has long served on the Committee on Academic Freedom of the American Association of University Professors. She calls academic freedom "a complicated idea with limited application." And that would be true even under optimal conditions -- with everyone clear that academic freedom is an institutional principle and not a right guaranteed by law, and that only a very small percentage of the population has any claim to exercise it.

"Free inquiry is essential to its definition," Scott writes, "but it is inquiry patrolled and legitimated by disciplinary authority -- a disciplinary authority that, in turn, warrants autonomy, the freedom of scholars from external pressure. The university provides knowledge essential to the operations of democracy, but knowledge production is not a democratic process because it rests on the expertise of researchers and teachers."

When the principle of academic freedom took shape in the decades just before and after the turn of the 20th century, the "external pressure" in question tended to come from religious institutions, trustees, or state legislators objecting to professors whose research and teaching challenged their beliefs or vested interests. Early formulations of the principle framed academic freedom as essential to the advance of knowledge and technical progress, or the fostering of a more widely and critically informed public -- higher goods than short-term comity. Scott quotes as "the best statement I have seen of the principle of academic freedom" the one issued by the regents of the University of Wisconsin in 1894. Succumbing to pressure to fire a controversial professor "would be equivalent to saying that no professor should teach anything which is not accepted by everybody as true," the regents stated. "This would cut our curriculum down to very small portions."

To put it in a more pointed fashion, those outside academe have every right to express an opinion -- but they have no authority over what kinds of knowledge were pursued, or how, or how it is taught. The only community standards that apply are those of the community of scholars. And academic freedom entails not just the right but the obligation to enforce them, for autonomy does not equal license. Scott quotes John Dewey's invocation of "an organized society of truth-seekers" as the guiding force in scholarly life. "By which he meant," she writes, "the newly created disciplinary associations of his day, those intercollegiate bodies that set standards of inquiry and assessed the validity (the apparent scientific quality or truthfulness) of the ideas offered by their members. In return for fulfilling one's responsibilities to the discipline, one received protection from outside intervention."

Things would be much simpler if knowledge and power were as sharply distinct as all this implies -- with professional conduct and scholarly expertise on one side, public opinion and worldly power on the other, and a wide clearing in between. Scott upholds the principle of academic freedom while acknowledging the tensions inherent in it, particularly around disciplinary authority. On the one hand, "disciplinary communities provide the consensus necessary to justify academic freedom as a special freedom for faculty." On the other, there are times when their "regulatory and enabling authority … can suppress innovative thinking in the name of defending immutable standards."

Add a few more hands pushing from outside -- a couple of them writing checks for endowed chairs -- and Dewey's "organized society of truth-seekers" becomes problematic, if not a pipe dream. But Scott finds no real alternative on offer. In an interview with Bill Moyers appearing as an epilogue to the book, she says, "It's precisely within disciplines that the judgment and evaluation and regulation happens. If you're not in the discipline, you have no way of knowing what the standards are, what the history of changing modes of interpretation have been, whether the work is following acceptable patterns of proof and evidence."

Even granting her this point (despite the challenge to it implied earlier in the book when acknowledging disciplinary rigidities and blind spots) it seems more applicable to an earlier period, when the disciplinary communities were smaller, with more members either holding tenure or in a position to pursue it, and not so many vectors of disinformation making the very concept of expert authority more difficult to uphold.

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