Academic Freedom as a Precondition of Productivity

I was asked about my view that academic freedom is a precondition of academic productivity in the comments on an earlier thread.

Here’s the Minnesota Review essay where I lay that argument out in some detail. A lot of it will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, I’m sure.

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5 Responses to Academic Freedom as a Precondition of Productivity

  1. Withywindle2 says:

    Interesting. Must mull. More later. Thank you!

  2. The discussion of tenure is particularly good.

  3. Julian Long says:

    I also admire the discussion of tenure, but I’m thinking now how this argument may relate to a friend who has been atacked by David Horowitz and now, on different grounds, by some within her own discipline. I’m speaking of a scholar who is politically active outside the classroom, and whose activism perhaps makes her a target for a particular sort of ambitious colleague.

  4. withywindle says:

    A detailed critique of various of your points.

    1) “Many of those on the cultural right now beating the war-drums against academia believe, explicitly or implicitly, [the Gramscian and Foucaultian position] that social institutions directly reproduce forms of consciousness and create socially powerful forms of ‘truth.’”

    This is not quite right. To begin with, the idea that social and economic position in some manner influences the search for truth/generation of knowledge goes back at least to Rousseau; to say that the latest iteration of this view by Gramsci and Foucault has influenced left-leaning academics does not necessarily mean the same line of influence has formed the view of conservative academics—who could have acquired it from other post-Rousseauian thinkers. Furthermore, this line of thought has strong and weak versions—strong, “create socially powerful forms of truth,” and usually with the corollary that one cannot escape the effects of one’s social position—weak, “may influence perceptions of truth,” and with the theoretical possibility allowed that one may transcend one’s social positioning, even if many fail to do so. An even weaker, banal version, hardly rises to the level of theory—a scholar in Oxford University in 1810 often had intellectual views that reflected his position as an Anglican gentleman. This is so unremarkable that most such scholars would have said “Yes, of course,” if the proposition were put to them. The conservative critique has been most strongly against the strong version of this argument—the uncomplicated, vulgar notion that men’s income or skin color tells you everything you need to know about the content of their ideas. To say that conservatives embrace the weaker form of this argument, and apply it to contemporary academia, says little. To say that conservatives use the strong version of the argument, directly Foucaultian rather than indirectly Rousseauian—as you assert—is a statement for which I would require some substantiation on your part.

    2) “They call for the same exemption that some left-wing intellectuals called upon in the 1980s and 1990s, believing that the only people who are not a product of such indoctrination are their own constituencies and organizations.”

    This does not seem plausible on the face of it. The very point of “values conservatism” is that values must be positively preached and instilled in each succeeding generation, by parents, preachers, neighbors, politicians, and even professors, if they are to be preserved; that all values, good and ill, are the result of positive catechetical effort. The hostility to leftist academia is not the fact of indoctrination as such, but the content of such indoctrination. You are, perhaps, misled by the obvious rhetorical trick that one always refers to one’s own efforts as education, and one’s opponents’ efforts as indoctrination—but this is the usual partisan abuse, and should not be taken seriously for purposes of intellectual analysis.

    3) “For many conservative critics, “the wisdom of crowds” is wise if it matches their own agenda. When it does not, it is the product of the liberal media, of left-wing professors, of the sociological domination of “blue-state” elites, or some other intervening force.”

    And Thomas Franks writes What’s the Matter with Kansas; tu quoque and all that. Leaving aside the Jonah Goldberg school that avowedly distrusts populisms of all persuasions, as well as the wisdom of crowds, this is to conflate a number of issues. One is the faith in the wisdom of crowds, as against the pretensions of all would-be elites, not least professors with greater faith in their ratiocination than in the judgment of their fellow men. Another is one’s own particular political agenda, which conservatives—as all political factions—pursue despite the ups and downs of current public opinion, hoping in the long run to secure the validation of the wisdom of the crowd. A third is the sense that the wisdom of the crowd can be so corrupted that a state may fail to preserve itself—this not an issue of the wisdom of the crowd as against the wisdom of the elite, but of the possibility that even the wisdom of the crowd may fail, when sufficiently poisoned by academic elites. To say the crowd is better than the elites is not to say that it is always correct or that it cannot make a fatal error. Finally, to observe that academics have effect on public opinion by means of their teaching, or that opposition to the conservative agenda is constantly taught by the professoriate, has nothing to do with the philosophic position on the wisdom of the crowd; these are separate observations, which do not conflict.

    4) “I would argue in favor of a procedurally liberal and Habermasian conception of knowledge and communicative action, academic and otherwise, and I believe that knowledge has a value that is substantially independent from its instrumental relationship to social power.”

    Which is why in a good world my revision of Habermasian theory will knock the knees out from under your arguments. But leave aside Withywindlish daydreams: by depending on Habermas, you do depend on a normative theory of human affairs that compels you to adopt circular reasoning: your description of human affairs is dependent on the ideal you have adopted, and your prescriptions for human actions compel the Habermasian norm. Your bonds of reason are the shadows of shackles on mankind’s judgment. But this is an old argument.

    5) “I also assume that most people under most circumstances are evaluating what they hear and see with a kind of everyday critical intelligence and reasoned pursuit of their own interests.”

    Reasoned pursuit of interest is what my revision of Habermas argues for—but it is not compatible with Habermasian theory as it now stands, which in the last analysis rejects private interest as a basis for communicative action—sees communicative analysis as transcending private interest.

    6) “The best defense of academic freedom, in many ways, is not that it is a right, but that it is the key to the productivity and usefulness of higher education. Innovation and creativity within universities is strongly enhanced by the general provision of autonomy to individual faculty members. Centralized hierarchies tend to suppress or discourage innovation, originality and independent critical thought.”

    I am uneasy with this line of argument. What if you could be convinced that academic freedom was not key to academic productivity? Would you then junk academic freedom as an ideal? Likewise, would you junk professorial autonomy if experience proved it unproductive? Your view of liberty is unsettlingly utilitarian here, and hints at a lack of attachment to academic freedom as a virtue in and of itself.

    7) “One of the odder ironies of the debate about academic freedom is that some of the critics who posture as conservatives end up favoring, with varying degrees of explicitness, much more centralized systems of organizational control. A few may deny that this is their intent, but this is what talk of standardized testing and assessment measures, more top-heavy supervision of professorial labor, regularized national curricula, and accountability to legislatures for the content of scholarship amounts to, central planning.”

    “Posture,” is an oddly tendentious, sneering word usage—although balanced by the implicit argument that you admire is proper conservatism. Again, you conflate not only proposals for reform of the high schools with proposals for reform of the universities, but also conflate what conservatives think is unfortunately necessary, due to the dereliction of professors, from what is positively desirable. Yeah, conservatives don’t trust professors anymore to engage in professional self-regulation; experience has proven them incapable or unwilling. And conservatives are not hostage to ideological universalism—we are willing to downplay our preference for decentralized governance when faced with this appalling fact. A preference is not the same thing as a rigid rule.

    Now, to say that what conservatives have proposed amounts to central planning is exaggeration. It may lead to central planning, but it is not now, and not as proposed, central planning in any meaningful sense; a French education bureaucrat would find these tests and oversights still lamentably disorganized. If you call these current proposals “central planning,” you are using the concept so loosely as to lose analytical power.

    8) “In some ways, the university that some critics of American higher education seem to pine for is the cynical, underfunded, centralized form of public university that dominates Western Europe.”

    Well, no, in no way does it seem to be what conservatives pine for. We generally pine for the demi-Eden inhabited by Adler, Trilling, and Conant, American education as it was in the glory years from about 1930 to 1960. What we call for as a desperate solution to academia’s decline may lead us willy-nilly to a European model—it is certainly a fine play of rhetoric to use a conservative bete noire as an image by which to criticize conservatives—but you impute a motivation and a goal without a scrap of evidence.

    9) “This perspective recasts academic freedom as a pre-condition of productivity, a professional mode of organizing labor, and less as an extension of a civil right. Understanding academic freedom in these terms also provides important boundaries. Professional practice undertaken to enhance the mission of an institution extends only as far as it is productive or generative.”

    Again, you scant the idea that the most important thing that a teacher can teach is the practice of liberty, in their teaching and research—that all other productivity is, ultimately, secondary. And if all the autonomy granted the professoriate also leads to unison political catechisms enforced on the student body, then professors have the liberty to produce everything but liberty itself. And if outside supervision, central planning, increases the production of academic lessons in liberty, and reduces all other academic productivity and autonomy, then that is a desirable trade.

    10) I endorse your general critique of the evils of tenure.

    11) “It is true that groupthink can include political elements.”

    Once you have conceded this, I rather think that much of your carping against conservatives rings hollow. Now you are not disputing the existence of leftist, political groupthink, but its extent—and this puts you in alignment with the conservative critique on the most fundamental level. Furthermore, your description of the “thousand tiny cuts” of groupthink, of self-censorship and fear of pariah status, reinforces the conservative critique of leftist, political groupthink. It too, presumably, operates by the thousand tiny cuts; you cannot argue the power of academia’s disciplinary groupthink (as you do) without arguing the power of academia’s political groupthink. How can you write a sentence such as “Those who were personally and professionally comfortable dissenting from consensus are often screened out or discouraged by the process of academic training and tenuring,” and not see its political relevance?

    12) “The efforts of some conservative critics to monitor teaching and scholarship hardly help to move academia towards a culture of openness.”

    You should acknowledge the argument that these efforts move professors away from a culture of propaganda, which in turn promotes all the other virtues of liberty. Incidentally, your use of the phrase “panoptic pressures” also cuts against your use of Habermasian public sphere theory. What is the public sphere if not an exaltation of the virtues of panoptic pressures? The pressures on academics are not from observation by all, but from observation by the view; to assume that observation by all is simply to multiply the ills of observation by the few is incompatible with Habermasian theory.

    13) “Academia is not uniformly composed from a left-leaning blue-state urbanite bourgeoisie. It might be that the humanities and some of the social sciences tend to resemble this caricature, but the faculties of many professional schools such as business, law and medicine are quite different.”

    Statistics, please? The evidence of the political donations of university employees, in all schools, is of an overwhelming liberal/Democratic bias. Business professors are said to be far more liberal than businessmen, law professors more liberal than lawyers, medical professors more liberal than doctors—and all groups growing more liberal by the year. What proportion of business school professors are liberal? Only 60% What proportion of business school professors under 40?—and, indeed, the relevant statistic for all the different schools is “professors under 40.” There certainly are some relict conservatives on the faculty, but the number of conservative young professors in the humanities is vanishingly small—and, I suspect, nearly so in the other schools.

    14) “Some conservative critics seem to think, strangely, that academia should somehow exactly mirror the national society in its political composition.”

    Name one. (This actually is a problem throughout your essay. You indulge in saying “conservatives critics” say this and that. Yeah, and I can say that “some liberal critics” are total whack-jobs, and it would be correct, insinuating, and an insufficient description.) The contention is that academia’s liberal monochrome is prima facie evidence that something is wrong with academia as it now stands—this is not remotely identical with promoting a political quota system. We fully expect that a better academic system will end up with more conservatives—but that system could produce 30% conservatives, 90% conservatives, any non-trivial number of conservatives, and we’d be happier than with the current exceedingly trivial number. And I like to think that we’d be unhappy if there were only a trivial number of liberals—maybe not quite as unhappy, but hardly satisfied.

    15) “Academic freedom, the capacity to innovate and learn, is enhanced by the active presence of a wider range of approaches and perspectives, by heterogeneity in experience and outlook ….”

    Your argument in this paragraph is quite persuasive. Your argument in this paragraph is identical to the arguments of real conservatives, as opposed to the unnamed caricatures you present in the essay. The people you badmouth prize academic freedom on precisely the same grounds you do.

    16) “Open-access is overwhelmingly in the best interest of academics.”

    Fairly persuasive. But it also sounds like an academic spin on EFF agit-prop, so I’m cautious. I’d like to hear a counter-argument, anyway.

    17) “Defending academic autonomy without favoring open-access circulation is a contradiction in terms.”

    I don’t think this is true. In their immediate effects, they are not much related to one another. You make an interesting argument for how the lack of open access can support groupthink—but your arguments don’t quite substantiate so strong a statement.

    18) “The challenge to live up to the terms and possibilities of academic freedom is not just for academics alone, or a special burden for “liberal professors”. It applies with equal force to many conservative critics of U.S. universities: they too are increasingly trapped in their own forms of groupthink, their own closed loops of authentication.”

    We’re increasingly trapped by groupthink too? Could be, but one would like to know why. Your essay’s been about academia, not about the critics—who are not a profession, not in remotely the same set of incentive structures. This is just an assertion, your little gesture of moral equivalence, which is structurally unnecessary for your essay, and ought to follow an actual analysis of those nameless conservative critics—perhaps naming them and analyzing what they actually say—rather than serve as a peculiar, unsupported coda here.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Sorry for taking so much time to reply to this very detailed comment, Withywindle.

    A couple of broad replies. First, thanks for poking me on the Habermas. I actually agree with you about the shortcoming in Habermas, and I’m pretty close to you on what I’d prefer (basically, to foreground a conception of the rational, sovereign individual). What I get from Habermas is the discursive proceduralism, the conception of an ideal public sphere, but I think you’re right that Habermas wants some kind of structural guarantee of the socially positive character of the public sphere.

    A lot of your other comments object to my characterization of conservative criticisms of the academy. I will have to fess up here that these are in fact, yes, generalizations, and so I’m open to the critique I’ve levelled at others. In my defense, I’d say two things. First, that I was trying to focus in this piece on the obligations that the defenders of academic freedom incur in their defense, so going into too much detail on the problems of conservative criticisms would have taken away from that objective (and put me well beyond my stipulated word count.) Second, I base those generalizations on a fairly narrow base of criticisms: basically, I had in mind ACTA, Mark Bauerlein, Phi Beta Cons, and some similar kinds of sources. Maybe an actual analysis focused on some of the points I make in passing in this essay would be a good idea. I’m really very confident, for example, about the claim that these critics are basically gesturing towards centralized control of the academy. Notice that you yourself do it in this reply, in what I would call the characteristic form: I’m not for centralization, but if I’m desperate enough, I may turn to that.

    On whether I would continue to defend academic freedom if it became unproductive. Here I think you’re at the doorway to a fairly deeply held aspect of my own generalized view of institutions and individuals. Basically, I almost don’t believe that the decentralization and autonomy that are the basic foundations of academic freedom can be unproductive in an institution like academia. I’m almost prepared to say that they’d be a good thing in any institutional setting, but it may be that there are narrow, specific contexts where strong hierarchies are generative. So you’re right to poke me on this point, because I argue it in this essay almost as if I think it’s potentially falsifiable (e.g., that maybe under some circumstance, academic freedom would no longer be a good idea) when in fact I have almost an intrinsic faith that decentralized, “emergent” institutions are better. But the key thing for me is that this comes from somewhere different at this level of specificity than a belief that free speech is an overall good. In the end, both those arguments may be the same (e.g., that a rights-based society of individuals is decentralized in a similar fashion) but they’re not immediately the same thing.

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