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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Embrace your urge

From the I’m Just Getting Around To It files: Stanley Fish’s July 23 op-ed on academic freedom is pretty good, except for where it’s not.  It starts off with brio:

Kevin Barrett, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has now taken his place alongside Ward Churchill of the University of Colorado as a college teacher whose views on 9/11 have led politicians and ordinary citizens to demand that he be fired.

Mr. Barrett, who has a one-semester contract to teach a course titled “Islam: Religion and Culture,” acknowledged on a radio talk show that he has shared with students his strong conviction that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job perpetrated by the American government. The predictable uproar ensued, and the equally predictable battle lines were drawn between those who disagree about what the doctrine of academic freedom does and does not allow.

Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)

Both sides get it wrong. The problem is that each assumes that academic freedom is about protecting the content of a professor’s speech; one side thinks that no content should be ruled out in advance; while the other would draw the line at propositions (like the denial of the Holocaust or the flatness of the world) considered by almost everyone to be crazy or dangerous.

But in fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous). Rather, academic freedom is 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.

So far, so good.  The “both sides get it wrong” gambit is a familiar one, coming from Fish, who’s been deploying it for over thirty years now, ever since he strode boldly into the seminar room where people were arguing about whether texts determine meaning or readers determine meaning and informed the participants that both sides got it wrong. And I especially like the insistence that academic freedom is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like: this is precisely what Horowitz and Company have been telling students, in the course of trying to convince them that they have something called “academic freedom” which is violated every time they are made to feel uncomfortable about expressing a conservative opinion about something.  (The Young America’s Foundation is fighting back against liberal-professor oppression, by the way:  “Some people think because Republicans are in power, there is no need for conservative thought on campus,” [Roger] Custer, [director of the National Conservative Student Conference], said. “But the truth is, students become liberal by osmosis.” Damn!  They’re onto us.  We will need a new formula. We will have to start creating liberal students by hypnosis!)

But a bit later on, Fish gives away most of the farm:

The distinction I am making—between studying astrology and proselytizing for it—is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.

And this is where we come back to Mr. Barrett, who, in addition to being a college lecturer, is a member of a group calling itself Scholars for 9/11 Truth, an organization with the decidedly political agenda of persuading Americans that the Bush administration “not only permitted 9/11 to happen but may even have orchestrated these events.”

Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.

I shouldn’t need to say this, but what the hell: I think “Scholars for 9/11 Truth” is a ship of fools.  Quite apart from the fact that the Bush Administration has been so inexpressibly awful that there is no need to add 9/11 conspiracy theories to the bill of particulars, it’s become quite clear to observers of Iraq and the post-Katrina Gulf Coast that there is no way the Bush Administration is competent enough to have pulled off those attacks.  A few years ago, in Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America (a book about postmodern conspiracy fiction), Timothy Melley argued that conspiracy theories, for all the subterranean horrors they purport to unfold, are actually consoling devices one of whose functions is to reassure us that somebody, anybody is in charge, no matter how malevolent.  9/11 conspiracy theories seem to me to offer classic examples of this dynamic, inasmuch as they invest so heavily in the fantasy of American omnipotence.  Besides, Scholars for 9/11 Truth do us all a profound disservice in that they distract public attention from the fact that the Trilateral Commission had Bruce Lee killed because of what he’d discovered about all those Roswell aliens being held in Area 51.

So if I were to go into a classroom and talk about 9/11 conspiracy theories, that’s pretty much the way I’d do it: by holding them at arm’s length and studying them alongside dozens of other crackpot theories about how the Truth Is Out There if only you know where to look.

But here’s the problem:

It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.

OK, so “embracing” and “urging” viewpoints is right out.  Note that this is a significantly different standard from the one Fish urged two paragraphs earlier: “no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.” I happen to agree that it’s illegitimate to use the classroom to recruit students to a political agenda.  But I don’t agree that it’s illegitimate to embrace and urge viewpoints.  (The question is whether you embrace and urge them in such a way as to dismiss all competing viewpoints, and penalize students who advance them.) And I think it’s a very, very serious mistake to confuse the two under the heading of “advocacy.”

I’m tempted to say that this idiosyncratic take on academic freedom makes more sense for Stanley Fish than for anyone else in the world, because over the years, as he’s argued that there is no such thing as literal meaning, there is no such thing as interdisciplinarity, there is no such thing as interpretive self-consciousness, there is no such thing as free speech, etc., it’s often been something of a puzzle as to whether he actually “means” what he says “seriously,” or whether he’s just trying to start a good argument.

But I will avoid this temptation!  Instead, I will leave you with the words of Louis Menand, whose 1996 essay, “Culture and Advocacy,” is way better than Fish’s op-ed.  I embrace this view of Menand’s essay, and I urge it too:

I can think of only two hypothetical classroom situations in which what I assume is meant by the term “advocacy” arises as a problem.  The first is the situation in which a professor knows that, say, Heart of Darkness is not a racist text but teaches it as if it were a racist text because she believes that students should be impressed with the need to combat racism.  The second is the situation in which a professor in a math class spends all his time lecturing about why we should all emulate the moral life of the Victorians but fails to demonstrate any connection between this idea and the subject matter of mathematics.

Both of these pedagogical practices seem to me wrong, but not for reasons having anything to do with advocacy.  The problem in the first case, of the professor who teaches Heart of Darkness as a racist text even though she doesn’t really believe it is a racist text, isn’t advocacy; it’s dishonesty.  It’s also extremely bizarre.  I have never heard of anyone doing this, and I cannot imagine why anyone would.  The problem in the second case is that the subject matter of the class is not being taught, and it wouldn’t matter what the professor was filling the class hour with.  It could be his recipe for egg salad.  Again, this sort of problem seems to me to be very rare, and I know of no evidence to suggest that it is less rare now than it ever was.  It is clearly regulable by the math department or the dean’s office when it happens.  And it is unrelated to issues about politics, ethics, or academic freedom.  It’s just unprofessional.

Apart from these virtually nonexistent types of cases, what are we talking about?  The various remarks in the agenda for this volume seem to me to boil down to one question: Should professors attempt to put across their own point of view about the material they teach in the classroom?  Of course we should.  What else could we do?  It is because we have views about our subject that we have been hired to teach them.  Our ethical constraint is only that we teach what we honestly believe the significance of the material to be.

You know, now would be a good time to pick up a copy of the ten-year-old book in which Menand’s essay appeared.  It’s called Advocacy in the Classroom: Problems and Possibilities, and I embrace it and urge it upon you not because I have a little essay in it but because on my campus, I’ve heard some of our more thoughtful conservative students say (sometimes to me) that well, maybe David Horowitz is a sorry old crank, sure, but at least he’s brought these questions out into the light, where they can be discussed.  Because you know professors would never have spent the time and energy to do it on their own.  Again, Advocacy in the Classroom dates from 1996, and it’s based on a conference held by a whole mess of academic organizations in June 1995.  Just saying.

The invaluable Sherman Dorn has more, with sentences like “Fish’s redefinition is the immaculate conception of academic freedom, somehow removed from the potential taint of actual ideas.”

Posted by Michael on 08/01 at 03:09 PM
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