Monday, February 09, 2009

Defining academic freedom

Although this item first appeared in the New York Times nearly three months ago, it warrants notice here and now. Stanley Fish praises a new book about academic freedom, Matthew W. Finkin & Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2009):

Academic freedomThe authors’ most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: “We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind.” The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are “grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes.”

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance. Those forces and influences would include trustees, parents, donors, legislatures and the general run of “public opinion,” and the device that provides the necessary protection is called academic freedom. . . .

It does not, however, protect faculty members from the censure or discipline that might follow upon the judgment of their peers that professional standards have either been ignored or violated. There is, Finkin and Post insist, “a fundamental distinction between holding faculty accountable to professional norms and holding them accountable to public opinion. The former exemplifies academic freedom: the latter undermines it.”

For the Common GoodHolding faculty accountable to public opinion undermines academic freedom because it restricts teaching and research to what is already known or generally accepted.

Holding faculty accountable to professional norms exemplifies academic freedom because it highlights the narrow scope of that freedom, which does not include the right of faculty “to research and publish in any manner they personally see fit.”

Indeed, to emphasize the “personal” is to mistake the nature of academic freedom, which belongs, Finkin and Post declare, to the enterprise, not to the individual. If academic freedom were “reconceptualized as an individual right,” it would make no sense — why should workers in this enterprise have enlarged rights denied to others? — and support for it “would vanish” because that support, insofar as it exists, is for the project and its promise (the production of new knowledge) and not for those who labor within it. Academics do not have a general liberty, only “the liberty to practice the scholarly profession” and that liberty is hedged about by professional norms and responsibilities.

I find this all very congenial. Were Finkin and Post’s analysis internalized by all faculty members, the academic world would be a better place, if only because there would be fewer instances of irresponsible or overreaching teachers invoking academic freedom as a cover for their excesses.

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