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Friday, January 27, 2006

Academic freedom

OK, so you may have noticed that I haven’t written any substantive posts for the past two days.  Well, we’re gonna make up for that today, and then some.

On Wednesday I taught my disability studies seminar (syllabus available on request—just e-mail me), and then Wednesday evening and Thursday morning I put the finishing touches on yesterday’s talk.  And here it is!  All five thousand words of it.  Yes, I know five thousand words is a long blog post, even by the standards of this famously long-winded blog.  But it actually wasn’t a terribly long talk; it clocked in at about 35 minutes, and no, I didn’t read it at the “lightning speed” some people attribute to me.  I read it at an entirely reasonable pace, and if you don’t believe me (and if you have access to Penn State’s Mediasite [this will be available to anyone with a computer for the next 30 days]) you can check out the audiovisual record for yourself.  (They gave me a CD of the presentation, but I can’t figure out how to upload the thing.)

So, then, here’s the actual draft, complete with hyperlinks for extra bloggy pleasure.  Feel free to take your time, of course, and have a great weekend.  The quiz will take place on Monday.

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I’m going to start off by saying a terribly obvious thing—but I hope that over the next half hour or so, it will come to seem less and less obvious as we go along.

The obvious thing is this: the title of today’s presentation, “Recent Attacks on Academic Freedom: What’s Going On?” can be answered in a single sentence.  Academic freedom is under attack for pretty much the same reasons that liberalism itself is under attack.  American campuses tend to be somewhat left of center of the American mainstream, particularly with regard to cultural issues that have to do with gender roles and sexuality: the combination of a largely liberal, secular professoriat and a generally under-25 student body tends to give you a local population that, by and large, does not see gay marriage as a serious threat to the Republic.  And after 9/11—again, for obvious reasons—many forms of mainstream liberalism have been denounced as anti-American.  There is, as you know, a cottage industry of popular right-wing books in which liberalism is equated with treason (that would be Ann Coulter), with mental disorders (Michael Savage), and with fascism (Jonah Goldberg).  Coulter’s book also mounts a vigorous defense of Joe McCarthy, and Michelle Malkin has written a book defending the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two.  In that kind of climate, it should come as no surprise that we would be seeing attacks on one of the few remaining institutions in American life that is often—though not completely—dominated by liberals.

In one way, we have seen this kind of thing before.  The American Association of University Professors was created, back in 1915, partly in response to the firing of professors who were deemed, at the time, to be insufficiently patriotic or dangerously pro-labor; more recently, even though the right wing claimed that political correctness was “the new McCarthyism” of the 1990s, and the left sees the current attacks as “the new new McCarthyism” of the 21st century, the truth is that abrogations of academic freedom in the McCarthy era were far more serious and far more widespread than anything we’ve seen over the past five years.  So, in one way, it’s the same old same old: academic freedom has always been a tenuous thing, especially in wartime and cold wartime.  Whenever liberalism is under attack, it’s a fair bet that academic freedom will be under attack too.

But in another sense this is an inadequate answer.  Not all college professors are liberals, and attacks on academic freedom are dangerous partly because, in some instances, they can undermine the intellectual autonomy of conservative professors.  And I don’t believe that this is the same old same old, either.  What we’re seeing today is actually unprecedented, for two reasons.  One is demographic: college professors have, in the aggregate, become more liberal over the past thirty-five years—though, as I’ll explain later on, most of the studies that have been done on this subject in the past three years are exercises in cooking the data.  The other is strategic: for the first time in American history, there is an organized, national campaign to undermine academic freedom by appealing to the ideal of . . .  academic freedom.  And the reason it’s enjoyed such success in recent years is that so few people—faculty, students, and state legislators included—seem to have a good grasp of what academic freedom really means.

I assume you already know that we have in Pennsylvania a House Subcommittee on Academic Freedom.  So far its hearings have been uneventful; one member of the subcommittee has even described them as a “colossal waste of time.” But it’s worth noting that HR 177, which created the Subcommittee, actually stipulates

that if an individual makes an allegation against a faculty member claiming bias, the faculty member must be given at least 48 hours’ notice of the specifics of the allegation prior to the testimony being given and be given an opportunity to testify at the same hearing as the individual making the allegation. 

I think some people read that paragraph in July of last year, when it passed the Pennsylvania House, and imagined a dramatic scenario in which outraged conservative undergraduates would stand up and say “J’accuse!” at hapless liberal faculty members who’d had but 48 scant hours to get their act together and haul themselves before a board of inquiry.  Happily, things haven’t unfolded in quite that way.  There doesn’t really seem to be a flood of students complaining about their liberal professors; here at Penn State, it turns out, we’ve had 13 complaints over the past five years, a period of time during which nearly 100,000 different students have taken classes with 8,000 professors.  And those thirteen complaints don’t fit any clear pattern, either; as Wednesday’s Centre Daily Times reported, in one, a Muslim student suggested that a professor was opposed to Islam; another student complained that a professor was too conservative.  Though it’s undoubtedly true that some conservative students here believe they have too many liberal professors, outright instances of punitive liberal bias appear to be as rare as fumbles by Jerome Bettis.  Which is, of course, not to say that they never happen, or that they aren’t dramatic when they do.

Pennsylvania is the only state to have passed one of these laws.  But thanks largely to the efforts of David Horowitz, bills like HR 177 have been introduced in about twenty states so far, and it’s clear that in many cases, the legislators sponsoring them are doing so in the name of preserving academic freedom—but without having any clear idea what academic freedom might be.  In Florida, for instance, State Rep. Dennis Baxley insisted, upon introducing a similar bill and shepherding it through an 8-2 party-line committee vote, that the legislation would help to combat “leftist totalitarianism” on the part of “dictator professors,” by allowing students to sue professors whenever they felt their beliefs were not being “respected.” At the University of Florida, the Independent Florida Alligator reported:

Students who believe their professor is singling them out for “public ridicule”—for instance, when professors use the Socratic method to force students to explain their theories in class—would also be given the right to sue.

“Some professors say, ‘Evolution is a fact. I don’t want to hear about Intelligent Design [a creationist theory], and if you don’t like it, there’s the door,’” Baxley said, citing one example when he thought a student should sue.

In January 2005, Ohio state senator Larry Mumper introduced a bill one of whose clauses read, “Faculty and instructors shall not infringe the academic freedom and quality of education of their students by persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” The language is drawn directly from the American Association of University Professors’ 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which says, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” I want to stress the “relevance” criterion here:  we’re not supposed to steer away from controversial issues; on the contrary, it is part of our job to bring up controversial issues.  What the AAUP insists is that we not introduce controversial matter that has no relation to our subject.  That qualifier makes all the difference in the world; but Senator Mumper gave no indication that he understood it.  When he introduced Senate Bill 24 last year, he was asked by a Columbus Dispatch reporter what he would consider “controversial matter” that should be barred from the classroom.  “Religion and politics, those are the main things,” he replied.  If Senate Bill 24 had passed in Ohio, in other words, there would be at least one state senator who understood it as a license to challenge the existence of college courses that deal with religion or politics.  Bad news for political science, history, philosophy, sociology, and religious studies departments, to be sure.  All I can say in response is that college is not a kind of dinner party.  It can indeed be rude to bring up religion or politics at a dinner party, particularly if you are not familiar with all the guests.  But at American universities, religion and politics are two of the hundreds of things we discuss on a daily basis.  It really is part of our job, even—or especially—if some of us have unpopular opinions on those subjects.

THE PRINCIPLE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it expressly insists that professors should have autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research.  In this respect it is one of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which sought—successfully, in those nations most influenced by the Enlightenment—to free scientists and humanists from the dictates of church and state.  And it is precisely that autonomy from legislative and religious oversight that helped to fuel the extraordinary scientific and intellectual efflorescence in the West over the past two centuries; it has also served as one of the cornerstones of the free and open society, in contrast to societies in which certain forms of research will not be pursued if they displease the General Secretary or the Council of Clerics.  But today, the paradox of these legislative “academic bills of rights” is this: they claim to defend academic freedom precisely by promising to give the state direct oversight of course curricula, of departmental hiring practices, and of the intellectual direction of academic fields.  In other words, by violating the very principle they claim to defend.

There are two more kinds of confusion behind the attacks on academic freedom, as well, and I’ll just touch on them briefly for now.

The first is that most critics of universities don’t seem to distinguish between unconscious liberal bias and conscious, articulate liberal convictions.  They take the language of “bias” from critiques of the so-called liberal media, where it is applied to outlets like the New York Times and CBS News that, in the view of some conservatives, lend a leftish slant to the news both deliberately and unwittingly.  But the language of “bias” is not very well suited to the work of, say, a researcher who has spent decades investigating American drug policy or conflicts in the Middle East and who has come to conclusions that amount to more or less “liberal” critiques of current policies.  Such conclusions are not “bias”; rather, they are legitimate, well-founded beliefs, and of course they should be presented—ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs—in college classrooms.  Now, notice that I said legitimate competing beliefs.  We have no obligation to debate whether the Holocaust happened.  And that’s not a hypothetical matter.  Late last fall, the philosopher with whom I co-founded the Penn State chapter of the AAUP, Claire Katz, informed me of a graduate teaching assistant in philosophy who had just had a very strange encounter with a student.  The course, which dealt with bioethics, had recently dealt with the vile history of experiments on unwitting and/or unwilling human subjects, from the Holocaust to Tuskegee, and the student wanted to know whether the “other side” would be presented as well.  I hope you’re asking yourselves, what other side?—because, of course, to all reasonable and responsible researchers in the field, there is no “other side”; there is no pro-human experimentation position that needs to be introduced into classroom discussion to counteract possible liberal “bias.” We are not in the business of inviting pro-Nazi spokesmen for Joseph Mengele to our classrooms.  But this is the language with which some of our students enter the classroom; it is the language of cable news and mass-media simulacra of “debate.” There is one side, and then there is the other side.  That constitutes balance, and anything else is bias. 

A second confusion has to do with “accountability.” The argument goes like this, and I have heard it innumerable times in recent years, here at Penn State and at public universities across the country: We pay the bills for these proselytizing faculty liberals—we should have some say over what they teach and how they teach it.  Public universities should be accountable to the public. And you know, at first blush it sounds kind of reasonable.  The taxes of the people of Pennsylvania do go to support Penn State, and I take the mission of the public university very seriously.  From Virginia to Illinois to dear old State, I have spent my adult life at public universities, and I will be happy to explain my teaching and writing to any member of the public who wants to learn more about it.  But let’s look more closely at that funding, and at what forms of “accountability” are appropriate to an educational institution.  Only twenty years ago, forty-five percent of Penn State’s budget was provided by public funds; back then, in-state tuition was $2562.  Our level of state support is now down to 10 percent, and, not coincidentally, in-state tuition is $11,508.  So perhaps it’s worth pointing out that state support has declined as state demands for accountability have increased; or, to put this more dramatically, I sometimes find myself faced with people who say, in effect, “I pay ten percent of your salary, and that gives me the right to screen one hundred percent of your thoughts.”

Now, Penn State as an institution is accountable for that ten percent of its budget.  We should—and we do—make every effort to ensure that our funds are spent responsibly, and I think everyone who’s dealt with the university purchasing system will know what I’m talking about.  Just this week, my wife and I have spent hours filling out forms and providing blood samples in triplicate in order to ensure that we are in compliance with university regulations every time we buy computer supplies or take a job candidate to dinner.  The university has been defrauded in the past, and we need to ensure that our budget is not wasted on, say, the thousand-dollar popcorn makers that have now replaced $700 hammers as the symbols of waste and fraud in the Pentagon’s purchasing system.  But that does not mean that legislators and taxpayers have the right, or the ability, to determine the direction of academic fields of research.  And I say this with all due respect to my fellow citizens: you have every right to know that your money is not being wasted.  But you do not have the right to suggest that the biology department should make room for promoters of Intelligent Design; or that the astronomy department should take stock of the fact that many people believe more in astrology than in cosmology; or that the history department should concentrate more on great leaders and less on broad social movements; or that the philosophy department should put more emphasis on deontological rather than on utilitarian conceptions of the social contract.  The people who teach these subjects in public universities actually do have expertise in their fields, an expertise they have accumulated throughout their lives.  And this is why we believe that decisions about academic affairs should be conducted by means of peer review rather than by plebescite.  It’s a difficult contradiction to grasp: on the one hand, professors at public universities should be accountable and accessible to the public; but on the other hand, they should determine the intellectual direction of their fields without regard to public opinion or political fashion.  This is precisely why academic freedom is so invaluable: it creates and sustains educational institutions that are independent of demographic variables.  Which is to say: from Maine to California, the content of a public university education should not depend on whether 60 percent of the population doubts evolution or whether 40 percent of the population of a state believes in angels—and, more to the point, the content of a university education should be independent of whatever political party is in power at any one moment in history.  Would I say this if Wellstone Democrats were in power in every state house from sea to shining sea?  Absolutely.  Without a moment’s hesitation.  Legislative interference by Democrats would violate the principle of academic freedom just as surely as would interference by Republicans, though I suppose the interference would take a somewhat different form.

Now, about all those liberals in the universities.  You know, all those hemp-wearing, pony-tailed aging hippies at the podium, still haranguing their students about the Vietnam War.  Well, you might ask, so what?  So college faculties are full of liberals—isn’t this like saying “dog bites man”?  “Francisco Franco still dead?” Many people, it seems, aren’t surprised or outraged by this at all; they expect college faculties to be full of liberals the way they expect country clubs or corporate boardrooms to be full of conservatives; it’s just the way the world is divvied up.  They get the money and the power and the finely manicured golf courses, and we get the survey classes on the American novel.  Personally, I don’t see why conservatives would be complaining about this arrangement.  To put this another way, the day American liberalism is identified primarily with Hollywood stars and college professors is not a good day for the cause of social justice.  Surely, movement conservatives know this every bit as well as I do.

And yet, of course, I know why they complain.  Their argument is that the liberal domination of some fields—like my own, English, and I could include most of the arts and humanities—is so complete that it can only be explained by deliberate, conscious discrimination.  And as a result, their recent studies of the makeup of the American professoriate have strikingly (and demonstrably) exaggerated the liberal presence in universities.

One recent, comprehensive survey of the political leanings of professors, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute and covering more than 55,000 faculty members from 416 institutions, showed that from 1989 to 2001-02, the percentage of faculty members identifying themselves as either “liberal” or “far left” grew from 42 to 48 percent; the percentage describing themselves as “conservative” or “far right” held steady at 18 percent; and the group identifying itself as “middle of the road” shrank from 40 to 34 percent.  The survey noted that “movement toward ‘liberal’ or ‘far left’ political identification over the last 12 years has been especially strong among women faculty: from 45 percent to 54 percent. . . .  In 2001, 21 percent of male professors and 14 percent of female professors defined their political views as either ‘conservative’ or ‘far right.’” In the general population, by contrast, a 2005 Harris poll showed that 18 percent of Americans describe themselves as liberal, 36 percent call themselves conservative, and 41 percent are “middle of the road.” Interestingly, those data have held firm for decades: moderates have remained at 40 or 41 percent, conservatives have varied between 32 and 38 percent, and liberals have remained at 18 percent since the Vietnam War.

SO THERE’S REALLY NO QUESTION that campuses are teeming with liberal faculty, at least when campuses are compared with the rest of the country.  That 48-18 differential is pretty significant, and the contrast with the general population is especially vivid in rural campus towns like State College.  Curiously, however, those numbers are just not exciting or dramatic enough for right-wing culture warriors like Horowitz, so they’ve gone and made up some new numbers more to their liking, in order to portray campuses as places where decent hardworking conservatives can’t so much as get their feet in the door.  In 2002 Horowitz teamed up with Karl Zinsmeister of the American Enterprise Institute, whose monthly magazine, American Enterprise, devoted the cover story of its September issue to a survey that apparently showed that liberals outnumber conservatives on college faculties by a ratio of eleven to one.  The study was quickly picked up by George Will and U.S. News and World Report’s John Leo, and it made the rounds of mainstream media in due course.  But it bears pointing out that the study is severely skewed. As Martin Plissner wrote in The American Prospect, Horowitz and Zinsmeister “sent student volunteers to boards of election to search out the party registrations of 1,843 college teachers at 21 institutions.” And though a liberal-conservative ratio of over 11-1 is stark, Plissner notes that these 11-1 dice are loaded:

In the University of Texas sample, for example, 28 of the 94 teachers came from women’s studies—not exactly a highlight of any school’s core curriculum or a likely cross section of its faculty. At the same time, none of the 94 was from the university’s huge schools of engineering, business, law or medicine—or from any of the sciences.

I should add, though, that some fields in the sciences have high liberal-conservative ratios as well, and it’s not clear how that could be the result of conscious discrimination, unless there’s some clearly identifiable form of liberal molecular biochemistry that I don’t know about.  Back to Plissner:

At Cornell University, it’s the same story: 166 L’s by the AE bar graphs, and only 6 R’s. But not one faculty member in the entire sample taught in the engineering, business, medicine or law schools, or in any of the sciences. Thirty-three, on the other hand, were in women’s studies—more than any subject, save for English.

The methodology employed is similarly slapdash at the other chosen campuses. Harvard’s faculty of more than 2,000 is represented by 52 members from just three academic disciplines, all in the social sciences. More than half of the University of California, Los Angeles sample comes from just two disciplines: history and, once again, women’s studies.

My colleagues in the Department of Statistics call this kind of thing “Cherry-Picking 101.” But even if the numbers were good, what, in the end, would those numbers tell you?  When you know someone’s party registration, what do you know about him or her as a psychologist or a plant botanist or an electrical engineer?  An anthropology department stocked with registered Democrats can still be a contentious, unruly, even dysfunctional department, as can an economics department stocked with registered Republicans.  And I can assure you that even in English, with all our registered Democrats, no faculty-meeting debate—about the direction of the graduate program, about the finalists for a new assistant professorship, about a new initiative from the dean’s office—gets resolved when someone stands up and says, “people, people—why are we arguing about the staffing of undergraduate courses and the desirability of hiring a medievalist?  Surely we can all find common ground in hating George Bush.”

Still, conservatives insist that they are outnumbered 10 or 11 or 30 to 1.  Apparently, a comprehensive study of over 55,000 faculty members’ self-descriptions, revealing that liberals outnumber conservatives by a ratio of 2.67 to 1 (48 to 18 percent) at over four hundred institutions, is just not good enough.  No, they have to go and look up the party registrations of eighteen hundred faculty members in liberal fields at twenty-one institutions, because the data are tastier when the data are cooked.

[Speaking of cooked data:  not content with exaggerating hysterically about the presence of liberals on the faculty, Horowitz has also advanced the bizarre theory that liberals utterly dominate the world of commencement speeches.  In September 2003 he published in his online magazine the results of a “survey” which showed that “99% of graduation day speakers called themselves liberals, Democrats, or Green Party Members.” The survey was conducted by Horowitz’s Center for the Study of Popular Culture; it covered a mere 32 of the United States’ 1500 four-year colleges (mainly places like Wellesley, Oberlin, Wesleyan, and Berkeley—famously liberal campuses where both students and faculty tend toward what one might call the vegan/ anti-globalization/ Vagina Monologues cultural left), and it listed people like Ted Koppel, Tom Brokaw, Scott Turow, Cokie Roberts, Peter Jennings, Claire Shipman, Christopher Reeve, and Lowell Weicker as “liberals” while listing Alan Greenspan and Helmut Kohl as “neutral.” Greenspan and Kohl are, of course, openly partisan figures, whereas most of the journalists and celebrities listed by Horowitz as “liberals” are invited to speak not because they are liberals but because they are journalists and celebrities.  (Oddly, even in this heavily weighted scheme of things, liberals, Democrats and Greens do not actually get 99 percent of the speaking engagements; Horowitz here claims that the left-right ratio is a mere 10 or 15 to 1.) The results of the “survey” appear on Horowitz’s website under the heading “One Last, Leftist Lecture,” and are accompanied by a picture of the Demon Lady herself, Hillary Clinton, dressed in cap and gown.  That’s the campus according to Horowitz:  leftist indoctrination at the hands of Hillary Clinton, Cokie Roberts, and Claire Shipman—and in a commencement address, no less.]

But why should anyone cook the data?  It’s taken me a while to figure this one out, and I think the answer is kind of complicated.  I can’t go into it in great detail now, but I’d be happy to take questions about it.  Basically, it has to do with the Civil Rights Act.  More specifically, with Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  More more specifically, with Griggs v. Duke Power Co., the 1971 Supreme Court decision that established what’s now called “disparate impact theory” in civil rights law.  Conservatives have been fighting disparate impact theory for 35 years, believing that it inevitably entails race and gender employment quotas.  The idea is that if there’s an entrance requirement or an employment practice that leads to an underrepresentation of women or minorities in a field, that requirement or practice has a “disparate impact” on the underrepresented.  Conservatives have long argued that this theory puts the burden of proof on employers to show that their application procedures and employment practices do not have a discriminatory effect; now, however, they’re pointing to the relative scarcity of conservatives on college faculties as evidence that faculty hiring programs and employment practices have a discriminatory effect.  But they have provided no data at all on the number of conservative applicants in the academic labor pool, and it is not clear to me how anyone could begin compiling that kind of data in the first place, unless we start asking all academic job candidates to fill out fifty-item questionnaires detailing their positions on everything from the minimum wage to environmental protection to the work of Michael Oakeshott.

I know that some of this may sound like special pleading on the part of one more liberal humanities professor.  But in closing, I want to insist to you that for the purposes of academic freedom, the liberal or conservative or radical-left or radical-right convictions of professors are actually beside the point.  The principle of academic freedom covers all such convictions.  But don’t take it from me; take it from a distinguished American intellectual who started out on the political left but who was horrified by Communism and spent most of his career as an outspoken conservative.  Here’s the late Sidney Hook, writing in his 1970 book, Academic Freedom and Academic Anarchy:

The qualified teacher, whose qualifications may be inferred from his acquisition of tenure, has the right honestly to reach, and hold, and proclaim any conclusion in the field of his competence.  In other words, academic freedom carries with it the right to heresy as well as the right to restate and defend the traditional views.  This takes in considerable ground.  If a teacher in honest pursuit of an inquiry or argument comes to a conclusion that appears fascist or communist or racist or what-not in the eyes of others, once he has been certified as professionally competent in the eyes of his peers, then those who believe in academic freedom must defend his right to be wrong—if they consider him wrong—whatever their orthodoxy may be.

This is a remarkable passage, I think—all the more remarkable because Hook used this rationale at the time (again, 1970) to defend an impolitic young Marxist historian named Eugene Genovese, who had recently made public his support of the Viet Cong—and, as Hook notes, had become immediately infamous for doing so:  because New Jersey’s Democratic governor rightly refused to fire Genovese from Rutgers on the grounds of aiding and abetting the enemy, the Republican gubernatorial candidate “focused his entire campaign on the issue of Genovese’s right to teach.” And Hook came to his defense.  One wonders what Hook would have said about Ward Churchill.  But I think it’s safe to say that we have come a very long way from principled conservatives like Hook to snake oil salesmen like Horowitz.

But you may wonder, why would Hook defend someone who voices his support for the Viet Cong in the middle of the Vietnam War?  To understand this, we have to make an important distinction between substantive liberalism and procedural liberalism.  For one of the things at stake here is the very ideal of independent intellectual inquiry, the kind of inquiry whose outcomes cannot be known in advance and cannot be measured in terms of efficiency or productivity.  There is no mystery why some of our critics loathe liberal campuses: it is not simply that conservatives control all three branches of government and are striking out at the few areas of American cultural life they do not dominate.  That much is true, but it fails to capture the truly radical nature of these attacks on academe: for these are attacks not simply on the substance of liberalism (in the form of specific fiscal or social policies stemming from the Progressive Era, the New Deal, and the Great Society) but on procedural liberalism itself, on the idea that no one political faction should control every facet of a society.  There is a sense, then, in which traditional conservatives are procedural liberals, as are liberals themselves; but members of the radical right, and the radical left, are not.  The radical right’s contempt for procedural liberalism, with its checks, balances, and guarantees that minority reports will be incorporated into the body politic, can be seen in recent defenses of the theory that the President has the power to set aside certain laws and provisions of the Constitution at will, and in the religious right’s increasingly venomous and hallucinatory attacks on a judicial branch most of whose members were in fact appointed by Republicans. [Readers of this humble blog might want to take note of Chris Robinson’s remark in the comments to the previous post: “I heard a Senator argue this morning that Sam Alito will serve as a corrective to the left-wing excesses of the Supreme Court. And, yes, he meant the left-wing excesses of the Rehnquist Court.” To which I replied, “No doubt that senator—Cornyn? Coburn?—was referring to Socialist Workers Party v. Wal-Mart (2003), in which the Supreme Court abolished private property and established ‘worker’s councils’ throughout the United States.  Alito will have his work cut out for him, I assure you.”] What animates the radical right, in other words, is not so much a specific liberal belief about stem-cell research here or gay civil unions there; on an abstract level, it’s not about any specific liberal issues at all.  Rather, it’s about the very existence of areas of political and intellectual independence that do not answer directly and favorably to the state.  So, for example (and this is my final example, chosen especially for you librarians out there), when in April 2005 Alabama state representative Gerald Allen proposed a bill that would have prevented Alabama’s public libraries from buying books by gay authors or involving gay characters, he wasn’t actually acting as a conservative.  Real “conservatives” don’t do that.  He was behaving like a member of the radical right.  Indeed, his original intent was to strip libraries of all such works, from Shakespeare to Alice Walker; and as he put it, “I don’t look at it as censorship.  I look at it as protecting the hearts and souls and minds of our children.” Thankfully, relatively few public officials see it as their job to protect the children of America from the heritage of Western culture. 

But some do, and that’s why academic freedom is so important.  It may not be written into the Bill of Rights—you know, the real one, the one in the Constitution.  It is far younger than the rights enumerated there, and more fragile.  But together with freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the freedom of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, academic freedom is an aspect of procedural liberalism that is one of the cornerstones of a free society.  If you believe in the ideals of the open society and the intellectual legacies of the Enlightenment, you should believe in academic freedom—and you should believe that it is a freedom worth defending.

Posted by Michael on 01/27 at 09:23 AM
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