Academic Justice and Intellectual Thuggery

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on February 21, 2014.

By now, Ms. Sandra Y. L. Korn must be wondering whether she picked her words wisely.  On Monday, February 17, Ms. Korn, a Harvard senior, published an essay in The Harvard Crimson, titled "The Doctrine of Academic Freedom," with the explosive sub-head, "Let's give up on academic freedom in favor of justice." 

The Crimson has now posted hundreds of comments, almost all of them disapproving.  And Ms. Korn's article has attracted attention well beyond the quad, as in Bill Zeiser's article in The American Spectator.  There doesn't seem to be much need to add to the growing string of put-downs.  Refutation, however, is another matter. 

Korn's argument is simply summarized: The freedom of faculty members to pursue research and to teach has some value, but these activities always and everywhere reflect political considerations.  A university community rightly has its own political values and when a faculty member violates them, he should be silenced.  "Academic justice" is more important than academic freedom. 

Korn unabashedly upholds the priority of opposing "racism, sexism, and heterosexism" as campus priorities and cannot imagine any valid reason for compromising this "rigorous standard" for anything as porous as "academic freedom."  She cites various examples of opinions that she believes the Harvard community could and should appropriately quash.  These include the late Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein's views on the heritability of I.Q. and the ("hateful") views of an Indian scholar about Muslims in India.  Professor Harvey Mansfield may have "the legal right" to publish statements about "ladylike modesty," but Ms. Korn would "happily organize with other feminists on campus to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position."  She recommends that those who favor an academic boycott of Israel bypass academic freedom objections and focus on academic justice instead.  

The Inversion

What's wrong with Ms. Korn's position?  She is surely right that "academic freedom" is not a justification for saying anything whatsoever, regardless of its validity and regardless of the context.  Academic freedom doesn't justify plagiarism, fraud, or harassment.  Beyond the fairly obvious exceptions, however, we come to areas of dispute.  When the doctrine of academic freedom was laid out by the AAUP 99 years ago in its Statement of Principles, the idea was explicitly that scholars should be free from outside interference when they were engaged in genuine scholarship.  The AAUP conceived such scholarship straightforwardly as the pursuit of truth "by a scholar's method and held in a scholar's spirit."  The air that Arthur Lovejoy and the other conveners of the AAUP breathed was full of the scientific spirit.  They could not imagine a time when "a scholar's method" and "a scholar's spirit" might be empty categories. 

Who today in higher education can draw a clear line between "scholarship" and political advocacy?  Who maintains the distinction between rigorous inquiry according to disciplinary standards and relaxed expression of personal views? To be sure, many of us think those lines can and should be drawn. We depend, however, on the sagacity of scholars and the determination of the disciplines to keep such distinctions alive.  In some disciplines, the distinctions still hold fairly well.  In others, they have collapsed.  And then we have the problem of new "fields of study" in which "a scholar's method" and "a scholar's spirit" were foreign from the start. 

In practical terms this has meant that "academic freedom" has become a debased currency.  It is used--frequently and unapologetically--as an excuse for political advocacy on campus.  Moreover, that advocacy is often unmoored from any idea that it is a form of seeking the truth by means of scholarly inquiry. 

Which is to say, no wonder Ms. Korn is confused.  Academic freedom, as the idea developed historically, recognized the need to insulate scholars from the politically-minded outsiders who saw scholarship as threatening.  Today, members of the professoriate are often politically-minded and the doctrine of "academic freedom" is often inverted in an attempt to insulate them from genuine scholarly standards. 

That's a bit wordy.  To put it concisely:  academic freedom once meant protection from politics; now it means protection for politics. 

Intellectual vs. Academic Freedom

The AAUP in the last twenty years has embraced this inversion.  The National Association of Scholars firmly rejects it.  In our view, academic freedom remains a vitally important doctrine only to the extent that it creates a protected space in our society for rigorous scholarly inquiry. 

The inversion can be phrased in a manner that sounds attractive.  For example, the Harvard Kennedy School's Dean David Ellwood has issued a statement about an up-coming student-organized conference on the idea of creating a "single state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Dean Ellwood explains in passing, "The goal of academic freedom is to provide the free and open exchange of ideas, and the hope and expectation is that a wide range of diverse viewpoints will be represented and explored." 

"The free and open exchange of ideas" certainly sounds like a good thing in its own right, but is it really "the goal of academic freedom?"  I would say that intellectual freedom ("the free and open exchange of ideas") and academic freedom differ.  The free and open exchange of ideas gives us a vital forum for expressing opinions and beliefs.  Academic freedom is the narrower province of expressing views grounded in scholarly inquiry.

The distinction between intellectual and academic freedom used to be pretty clear, but it has certainly gone out of fashion.  One reason is the waning of the idea of disinterested scholarship and the waxing of the idea that "everything is political."  Ms. Korn is a devotee of the waxing.  She writes: 

Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever 'free' from political realities.

The hyperlink in her statement leads to an article by Donna Haraway, "Situated Knowledges:  The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective," in the journal Feminist Studies (Vol. 14, No. 3, Autumn, 1988). 

Disinterested Knowledge

This is by now progressive dogma.  No one is innocent.  Everything done in the name of seeking truth, getting to the facts, paring away illusions, or setting aside bias is itself an act political advocacy, even if the politics are well-hidden. 

The everything-is-political premise is a kind of conspiracy theory, and it is used by those who want to bring their own politics front and center in the academy to sweep aside the older ideal of disinterested scholarship.  'Nothing is truly disinterested, so let's just get on with advocating the things we like.'

This kind of assertion is day-in-day-out self-justification for much of the academic left.  If we criticize the history department at Bowdoin College for paying little attention to the American Founding, up pops a Bowdoin history professor to remind us, in effect, that nothing is truly disinterested, and the Bowdoin History Department has bigger race-class-gender-and-environmentalist fish to fry than the tired old American founding.  If we criticize the University of Texas at Austin History Department for making 78 percent of its freshman courses race-class-gender themed and neglecting entirely areas such as philosophical and intellectual history, up pops a UT history professor to say, in effect, nothing is truly disinterested . . .

The nothing-is-truly-disinterested line is not a regret or a worry about how hard it can be to filter out bias.  It is a jubilant declaration that we don't even have to try.  We can skip the vegetables of fair-minded inquiry (which is, after all, impossible) and go straight to the delicious dessert of teaching our favorite ideology. 

By invoking the nothing-is-truly-disinterested and everything-is-political dogma, Ms. Korn was simply repeating the governing principle of today's politicized academy.  But her next step was audacious and original.  Why not simply subordinate academic freedom to the pursuit of academic justice?  Given the premise that everything is political, why not?  The notion of "academic freedom" is encumbered with the sense that traditionalists, conservatives, and apolitical scholars could claim it too. Allowing "academic freedom" to take up rhetorical space means always having to fight off pesky claims that people like Professor Richard J. Herrnstein and Professor Harvey Mansfield have a right to be heard as well. Let's skip to the main point.  Politics determines who gets to speak, and let's just say that and be done.

I give Ms. Korn an A for consistency.  She has explicitly owned the implications of her premises. 

The trouble, of course, is that the premises are profoundly mistaken. If our universities deserve any special status, it is only because they are dedicated to pursuit of truth.  Scholarship worthy of the name must engage in a never-ending effort to filter out, counter, and overcome bias.  Academic freedom is for keeping scholarship clear of political pressure, not for intensifying that pressure and keeping aggressive opinion-making clear of critical examination. 

Ms. Korn may have inadvertently performed a public service.  Her article gave us a splendidly realized portrait of what the campus left thinks education is for.  Now that we know, we need to think hard about how to put to rest the pernicious idea that everything is and should be political. 

Image: "Harvard Commencement" by Ian Lamont // CC BY-SA

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