What does academic freedom mean?

A recent article in the New York Times by the notable (or notorious) literary scholar Stanley Fish (http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F6071EFC3F5B0C708EDDAE0894DE404482 (not free)) was discussing the concept of academic freedom. It started from the case of a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Kevin Barrett, who had been telling his students that the destruction of the World Trade Center was an inside job by the US government. A debate had begun about whether teaching such views should be allowed under the concept of academic freedom or not.

Fish’s article claims that the debate has been framed wrongly. He argues that academic freedom is not about the freedom of academics to say anything they like, but to study anything they like. Thus it would be acceptable to study astrology, but not to proselytize for it. As Fish puts it:

The true requirement [for academic study of a subject] is that no matter how many (or few) views are presented to the students, they should be offered as objects of analysis rather than as candidates for allegiance.

Fish gives as an example that in a debate about the pros and cons of the Iraq war:

it is part of a teacher’s job to set personal conviction aside for the hour or two when a class is in session and allow the techniques and protocols of academic research full sway.

Fish’s idea seems superficially appealing, in terms of balance etc. But applied to history, in particular, it is unrealistic and possibly even undesirable. Suppose, for example, you’re studying the Nazi concentration camps and the reason for their use. How many academics would be able to set aside their ‘personal convictions’ on this? And is it really unacceptable to ‘proselytize’ for the view that the mass killing of Jews is not a good thing?

Large amounts of teaching on religion would also be seen as academically deficient in Fish’s view. Many US universities with a religious denomination would not wish to take a neutral stand on religious/ethical matters. If you go to a Catholic college, you get a Catholic take on the Middle Ages, reproductive ethics etc. Equally, it is very hard to remove personal atheistic views from teaching. I once went to part of a series of lectures on the early Church by Keith Hopkins, a distinguished classical scholar. He started from the presumption that Christianity was a social construct, not revealed religion and that the historicity of Biblical texts was not a topic of interest. I found his views irritating and sometimes ill-informed (as did several other Christians and Jews in the audience), but all I did was vote with my feet and not go back. The idea that he should be stopped from saying such things or required to provide ‘balance’ would have seemed ridiculous. (For that matter, does it count as proselytizing in the Fish sense if you have a series of literature lectures trying to convince you that Thomas Middleton or Chaucer or Beowulf are really significant and important writers/texts? Should lecturers really have to start each Old English course by saying: “Some scholars believe that the study of Old English grounds us deep in the roots of English literature and culture. Others believe that such study is a pointless waste of time”?

If I ever get to teach early medieval history (which is not looking likely at the moment), then students are along the way going to get my take on questions such as whether the Muslim conquests of the seventh century were some unprecedented alien aggression and whether barbarians and Vikings were a Good or Bad Thing. If they want a different point of view, there are other lecturers they can hear and books they read. Academic balance to me means that if they produce a bad essay whose conclusions I agree with they get a lower mark if they produce a good essay whose conclusions I wouldn’t support. Trying to reduce teaching history to an opinion free-zone (or even one where you spend all your time saying “I believe this, but I’m not going to try and convince you to believe this”) is just going to produce boring academic mush.


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