The greatest threats to academic freedom come from academics themselves, not from their students or from politicians. That provocative claim is the thesis of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, an important new book by Joanna Williams slated for publication by Palgrave Macmillan in January 2016.
Williams, who directs the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at the University of Kent in the U.K. and serves as education editor for the online magazine Spiked, recently gave a lecture hosted by the New York Association of Scholars as part of a U.S. tour promoting her new book. Former NAS intern Madison Iszler also interviewed Williams for The College Fix.
In an hour’s talk, Williams analyzed the growing list of crackdowns on dissent from “consensus” positions. This summer economist Bjorn Lomborg got ousted from the University of Western Australia after outrage that he “downgrades” global warming and insufficiently fears it. In 2013, feminists at the University of Kent “deplored” the London School of Economics for daring to even “give a platform” to legal scholar Helen Reece. Reece, who spoke at a debate on rape law, had written an article, “Rape Myths,” in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies that argued the unpopular thesis that judges in rape cases were not necessarily biased against the accuser. In June Tim Hunt, a Nobel Prize-winning biochemist, resigned an honorary position at University College, London, after he made a self-deprecating joke about female scientists distracting him in the laboratory. The list goes on.
Williams acknowledges that forces outside the faculty have long warred against free exchange of ideas on college campuses. It is usually students, for instance, who demand trigger warnings, rail at “microaggressions,” and call for disinviting controversial speakers.
But professors built the ideological machinery that hollowed out the very idea of academic freedom in the first place. And professors still operate the intellectual levers that pressure controversial speakers to keep quiet.
Williams argues that the rejection of academic freedom not only prevents the advance of knowledge (by stifling the conversations and debates that sift out truths from misconceptions) but actually stems from the rejection of truth as a metaphysical or intellectual reality. The advent of postmodernism has situated truth within the person contemplating it. “Truth,” if and to the extent it existed, is seen as perspectival. It is therefore neither universal nor uniform.
This conception of truth as personal and subjective, when combined with assertions from feminists and critical race theorists that the personal is political, amounts to a proclamation that politics, not truth, is the primary concern of higher education. Under this framework, the very claim that truth exists and that university professors and students should seek and understand it, is cast as a boorish, inappropriate affront to personal political identity. The purpose of professors, then, is not to advance truth claims and weigh out which best fits reality, but to advance sustainability, feminism, diversity, inclusivity—any number of ideological movements that aim at celebrating individual personal political identity rather than coming to understand the world and one’s place in it.
When professors cease putting forth and debating truth claims, Williams says, academic freedom is no longer relevant in any meaningful way. There is no need, in this postmodernist worldview, to afford protection to controversial but potentially true ideas. In fact, as the university moves closer to its subjective ideals but retains the linguistic artifacts of its past, “academic freedom” can actually become a weapon against the academics it once protected. A roster of conformity-enforcing techniques—burning controversial books, disinviting or “no-platforming” controversial speakers, screening out nonconformist faculty with ideological litmus tests—becomes in Orwellian style an example of “academic freedom.”
Has “academic freedom” itself become a tool of ideological conformity? For a fuller answer to that question, read Joanna Williams’ book this January.