Where "Academic Freedom" Belongs

In a guest op-ed in The New York Times on Sunday, Stanley Fish writes:

All you have to do is remember that academic freedom is just that: the freedom to do an academic job without external interference. It is not the freedom to do other jobs, jobs you are neither trained for nor paid to perform. While there should be no restrictions on what can be taught — no list of interdicted ideas or topics — there should be an absolute restriction on appropriating the scene of teaching for partisan political ideals. Teachers who use the classroom to indoctrinate make the enterprise of higher education vulnerable to its critics and shortchange students in the guise of showing them the true way.

Well, yes. But Fish is falling into a trap set by David Horowitz and all the others who want governmental control over what goes on in our university classrooms. By conflating two aspects of university professorship, Fish may unconsciously be helping Horowitz along.

The Horowitz crowd uses “academic freedom” as a wedge to push for legislative oversight in our universities. They recognize that most people don’t know the difference between “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom,” so push for student “academic freedom” in the face of professors who, they claim, don’t give room for competing views—especially those espoused by students.

Fish recognizes that “academic freedom” doesn’t apply to students (or even to their research). He defines “academic freedom” as “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.” And he is right.

The problem is that he then falls into the trap of considering academic freedom in the classroom—where it does not belong. Where it has never been.

Let me repeat: academic freedom has nothing to do with the classroom. It’s a basis of unfettered research only. And not undergraduate research, which isn’t the “real” research of an academic, but is an exercise meant to teach skills that can be later used for “real” research.

Though I do not mean to say that student views should not be respected (they should be), the classroom is not a place of democracy or equality—though many teachers in the sixties and seventies tried to pretend it is so (‘a community of learners’ and other such). It cannot be; the professor not only evaluates the students in a much more substantial way than the students do the professor, but the professor has a great deal more experience with the subject matter than do the students. Our system of study in our universities is set up with this fact in mind—and tries to counteract its ill effects by requiring some 40 different courses for graduation, generally from different professors. Those who designed the system wanted to make sure the students were exposed to different views.

And they should be—but not at the expense of the focus and plan of the individual course. Breadth happens through exposure to differing approaches in differing classes. For many reasons, particularly because of limitations of time, it makes no sense to try for that same thing in each individual course.

In addition, trying to promote classrooms that cover all sides of any issue necessarily brings too much control over the classroom to too many different people. No individual professor, after all, can be trusted (no one can) to give equal weight to every theory. So, outsiders start to have much more influence.

What the professor has to do, as Fish says, is to keep indoctrination out of the classroom. One of the only ways to do that, though, is to get people to understand that “academic freedom” doesn’t belong in the classroom either. If a professor is indoctrinating students in the classroom, that should be addressed—questions of “academic freedom” completely aside.

Where Fish gets sucked in by Horowitz is in considering the classroom at all when talking about “academic freedom”:

There is a world of difference, for example, between surveying the pro and con arguments about the Iraq war, a perfectly appropriate academic assignment, and pressing students to come down on your side. Of course the instructor who presides over such a survey is likely to be a partisan of one position or the other — after all, who doesn’t have an opinion on the Iraq war? — but it is part of a teacher’s job to set personal conviction aside for the hour or two when a class is in session and allow the techniques and protocols of academic research full sway.

Absolutely. But what has that to do with “academic freedom”?

Absolutely nothing. It has to do with appropriate behavior in the classroom. Yet, when we engage in that discussion, many people start to think we are still talking about “academic freedom”—when we are not.

Fish’s mistake is based on conflation of the job of teaching with the job of research, placing them both under the umbrella “academic job.” Certainly, many academics (though not nearly all) do work in both fields—but the two are not the same. “Academic freedom” is solely an aspect of the research job. It’s when we start considering it in terms of the teaching job that we start to get into trouble.

We then open the door to attacks by people like David Horowitz, whose ultimate goal is to control the research as well as the teaching—through complaints about the teaching (about indoctrination, but without ever verifying that it is happening—but that’s another story).

Teaching requires diversity, but not “academic freedom.” Research requires “academic freedom,” but diversity is irrelevant. Why? Because the student needs broad exposure while the professional (as opposed to student) researcher needs to know that she/he will not be punished for exploring unpopular pathways. When we start mixing these together, all we are doing is providing a broad avenue of attack for the enemies of academia.

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