Medical Tuesday Blog

Stanley Fish’s Postmodern Take On Academic Freedom

May 29

Written by: Del Meyer
05/29/2017 1:07 PM 

Versions of Academic Freedom

Reviewed by Peter Wood | Oct 27, 2014

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on October 24, 2014.

Whatever their ostensible subjects, Stanley Fish’s books tend to be about Stanley Fish. His new one, Versions of Academic Freedom, extends the conceit.

Which is not to say that the book is only a “Version of Stanley Fish.” It is also a succinct, well-informed, and often elegant essay.  Fish’s great talent is compression.  In this case he reduces the overgrown jungle of debate about academic freedom in America’s colleges and universities to a lucid list of five alternative positions:

1. The “It’s just a job” school

2. The “For the common good” school

3. The “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school

4. The “Academic freedom as critique” school

5. The “Academic freedom as revolution” school

These are “ideal types” in Max Weber’s phrase.  Fish no sooner names them than he admits that in the real world the lines blur and people are inconsistent.  Nonetheless, the five-fold typology provides both a map of the larger territory and a path to specific destinations.

It could use up the better part of a review just to explain the five alternatives, so at the risk of further compressing Fish’s compressions, I will leave it at this.  “It’s just a job” treats academic scholars as professional workers who, because they are hired to advance knowledge, need a certain amount of workplace latitude to do their jobs. This is the form of “academic freedom” that Fish says he upholds.  His position on this is consistent with his 2008 book, Save the World on Your Own Time, which I reviewed on my own time as “Night Makes Right.”

“For the Common Good” refers to arguments that granting academic freedom to professors within their disciplines contributes to self-government by militating against facile enthusiasms that can lead to the tyranny of public opinion.  “Academic exceptionalism” extols academic freedom by treating professors as people set apart from everyone else by their unusual talents and therefore deserving of privileges that are denied to ordinary people.  “Academic freedom as critique” projects the freedom of the professors beyond their disciplines to the rest of the social order.  “Academic freedom” in this view is almost synonymous with dissent.  “Academic freedom as revolution” holds that the whole purpose of education is to advance radical reform of society.

Fish’s typology is impressive, but the moment he applies it, it breaks down.  That moment comes straightaway with the case of U.C. Santa Barbara sociology professor William Robinson who got into hot water by sending an email to his students “comparing Israelis to Nazis and asserting that Martin Luther King would have stood with the Palestinians had he been alive.”  Fish proceeds by showing that the proponents of each rationale for academic freedom other than his own (“It’s just a job”) would have (or actually did) side with Robinson.  Fish’s position, by contrast, is that Robinson erred because his explicit goal was to advance a political cause rather than to stimulate “vigorous discussion” of an academic issue.  For Fish, the key question is motive.  He quotes Robinson speaking to the Seventh Annual International Al-Awda Convention in 2009 explaining that he acted out of “growing horror” at the “siege of Gaza,” and he intended, plainly, to advance his own judgments to his students.  In Fish’s view, this crosses the line.  If the conclusion is “ordained” before the inquiry begins, the inquiry is “not academic” and does not enjoy the protection of academic freedom.

In this case, Fish has set himself up rather nicely.  Every other “version” of academic freedom called to the witness stand has given the anti-Semite professor an alibi.  Only Fish can provide unambiguous and principled grounds to say why Robinson abused his privileges as a professor.

But surely something is missing from Fish’s account.  Might it be this?  Academic freedom concerns the pursuit of the truth. There are numerous situations in which the truth is not well-established, or established views are open to reasonable objections, or there are well-argued but mutually incompatible views.  A deep reason why we want academic freedom is to create a context in which reason and evidence on all sides of a contentious issue can be brought forward for thoughtful consideration and debate.  Without such debate, knowledge settles into stultifying orthodoxy.  Because “settled opinion” or orthodoxy is the natural state of opinion on most things, we have to take care to create some special conditions where people are encouraged to look further, question assumptions, and seek evidence that might not otherwise come into focus.  Academic freedom is what we call that special condition.  It is undermined when someone purloins its name not to seek the truth but to propound an opinion or enforce an orthodoxy. . .

Read the entire book review here


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