Is Academic Freedom a License to Indoctrinate?

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

I woke up this morning in a dream in which I was touring a large university with a guide. In good dream-logic, we were starting from the roof of a main building and descending floor by floor. On the top floor, I was impressed to see students in practice rooms learning to play drums, flailing away in various arrhythmic spasms. Good, I thought. They are getting a feel for the instrument. Then we descended to the next floor, and I was surprised to find more practice rooms with more students beating out senseless stuff on drums, no teacher in sight, and their thumps combining to a sound like an all-out war among sous-chefs. Then we descended another floor—more aimless drummers. And another, and another, and another. It was drummers idiotically drumming all the way down. The last thing I remember is asking my guide what else the university taught. He answered, of course, “We believe each student should follow his own beat.”

As I woke up and looked out the window, and at the break of dawn a surveyor was setting up his theodolite at the end of my driveway. A vision of quiet order taking the measure of things: I had escaped the inferno and was back on terra firma.

But then I remembered. Stanley Fish had used his New York Times Opinionator blog on Monday to declare, “We’re All Conservatives Now.” Fish’s declaration was the latest twist in the tale of Penn State’s decision to mutilate its academic freedom policy, HR64, to make clear that faculty members have no particular obligation to avoid indoctrinating students “with ready made conclusions on controversial subjects.” That was one clause eliminated from Penn State’s academic freedom policy, but not the only one. The redactors also decided it is no longer proper to call on faculty members to demonstrate “a fair and judicial mind” in presenting information; or to avoid subjecting divergent opinions to “suppression or innuendo.” And they decided to scrub the provisions that enjoined a Penn State faculty member not to use the classroom to discuss “controversial topics outside his/her own field;” and not to take advantage of professorial authority to introduce into the classroom “provocative discussions of irrelevant subjects.”


The Penn State Controversy

It is not clear that Penn State faculty members as a whole were inconvenienced by the old restrictions. The more ideologically aggressive members of the faculty probably ignored the policy and went right ahead using their classrooms to promote their political views, ignore or attack divergent opinions they disliked, and launch into topics remote from the subjects they were supposed to be teaching. But now they will be able to do that with an air of legitimacy.

My organization, the National Association of Scholars, posted on its website a dissenting view, “Free to Indoctrinate.” We take the view that the revisions are a troublesome invitation to faculty members to engage in conduct that serves students poorly and ultimately undermines academic freedom. Preserving that freedom is crucial for higher education, and to that end we need to maintain and wherever possible strengthen its foundation in the disciplined pursuit of truth. Opening the door even wider than it already is to using the classroom for ideological cant doesn’t expand academic freedom. Rather, it vitiates the principle that faculty members are sufficiently self-disciplined and committed to the responsibilities of fair-minded teaching that they deserve a large degree of autonomy.

The more license faculty members take to act like political agents in the classroom, the more society will treat them as just that. Moves such as the Penn State’s revision of HR64 ostensibly undertaken to expand academic freedom inevitably contract it over the longer run, though the mechanisms of contraction may not be immediately visible. Think of state legislatures weighing their budget priorities. The newly asserted right to indoctrinate  in the name of academic freedom is surely a factor in considering how much and in what ways the public should be expected to fund the enterprise.

David Horowitz saw Penn State’s  move as the “ruin” of the nation’s best university statement on academic freedom. (NAS has since posted a couple of rounds of back-and-forth with John K. Wilson, a defender of Penn State’s actions. The comments by NAS chairman Steve Balch strike me as an excellent distillation of what academic freedom really is.)

The policy has, of course, its supporters. I mentioned Wilson, but Inside Higher Ed also editorialized in its favor. And the AAUP praised it.

The Academic Left and Its Critics

Now comes Stanley Fish who intervenes to explain, “Both sides can’t be right, can they? Well, actually, they can.”

The “sides” he refers to are (A) Horowitz and the NAS as one side, which he characterizes as “the right,” and who lament Penn State’s actions; and (B) a whole bunch of people including AAUP president Cary Nelson and John K. Wilson as the other side, whom Fish characterizes as “the left.” The left, he says, is accurate to protest “withdrawal of state funds from public universities;” but the right is correct “to point out” that faculties are “predominantly liberal” and that they have created fields “whose inspirations were ideological.” (“Ideological” is not necessarily a bad thing in Fish’s reckoning.)

But left and right are joined, in Fish’s recounting, in their looking “backwards to the same idealized past,” their belief in the value of reason, and, drawing on Kant, the importance of higher education’s “emancipatory project.” Fish, of course, has long placed himself as a free agent who sees through these petty matters.

Fish is wrong in more ways than I have space for, so I’ll stick to just two. His left/right distinction is phony, and the ideal of emancipation is not held in common among the parties to this dispute, however we label them.

While I am used to the NAS being cast as a voice of “the right,” it isn’t. That’s a default characterization we gain because we frequently criticize positions struck by the academic left. A “left” by logic seems to require a “right,” but that’s a linguistic illusion applied to the participants in these controversies. The truth is that there is an asymmetry in these matters that belies the nomenclature. The academic left is a rolling consensus on matters such as affirmative action, diversity, multiculturalism, gay rights, feminism, sustainability, “social justice,” etc. There is no particular counter-orthodoxy coming from conservatives that stands as an opposite to this.

Some conservatives are fiercely in favor of free market economics; some are staunch defenders of values of the early American republic; some are moved by a Christian critique of America’s moral decadence; some are emphatically secularist and modernizing; some advocate for a hawkish foreign policy but are liberal on domestic issues including education; some put the principle of individual autonomy ahead of any appeals to the collective good; some even embrace affirmative action, diversity, multiculturalism, gay rights, feminism, and sustainability but see them through a lens of a “conservative” philosophic sensibility; and so on. What these views have in common is merely a sense of estrangement from the dominant ideology of the left, especially the academic left. To gather them together as “the right” is just bad ethnography.


From Fish’s position in a hot-air balloon high above the battlefield, it may seem that all the contestants are moved by the same (delusory) goal. After all, they are fighting over something. What is it? If their goals were as distinct as those of polar bears and reef fish, there would be no conflict. In a trivial sense, all sides do agree on the importance of the university as an institution that does  constructive work. The “emancipatory project,” if want to call it that, however, has some very divergent meanings for these contestants.  The academic left is eager to free students from the trammels of their own society.  The basic position of the left is that American society replicates the structures of oppression. Capitalism fosters heedlessness, superficiality, an ethic of consumption for consumption’s sake, and inhumane values.

The basic position of the “right?” I dispute the label, but I’d venture that most of the dissenters from leftist orthodoxy worry about the erosion of freedom in our society and see the rise of ideological indoctrination on campus as a cause for concern. If “emancipation” is an issue for these dissenters, it is mostly a matter of freeing students from those who would hijack their education in favor of political indoctrination.

It is easier to speak for myself and the NAS than to venture generalizations about a fictitious, all-comers “right.” I agree that emancipation is one of the root purposes of education and has been so since the birth of philosophy. We are appointed to help the prisoners escape the cave to discover the light of day. Truth-seeking is emancipatory, and pace Fish, the opposite of truth-seeking is ideology. The more ideological our universities, the less chance they have to liberate anyone from ignorance. We live in an era in which ideologies have become very sophisticated in countering this point, usually by arguing that students must be rescued from false-consciousness before education can really begin. Rescuing them from false consciousness is the warrant for all those “liberal” interventions that mount to indoctrination.

What happened at Penn State is a relatively small but startlingly clear distillation of the problem. A self-serving collection of faculty members decided they no longer wanted the trammels of having to avoid “indoctrinating” students. That’s the word they actually struck from their policy on academic freedom. Why on earth would the emancipated, enlightened faculty members of a major university want the right to indoctrinate? Should we be worried about the state of freedom in a society where a privileged elite covets this right?

I get the sense that if the left’s version of the “emancipatory project” succeeds, it wouldn’t have much to do with Kant; it will have a great deal more to do with Gramsci, Marcuse, Fanon, Foucault, and other anti-Kantian foes of the Enlightenment. American academics have domesticated these radical totalitarian thinkers by blending them with an ersatz individualism. The selling point these days is that it is a highly individualist thing to do to sign up with an ideology that depicts American history and its current institutions as sugar-coated oppression.  The invitation is to find your own beat—provided that you rap  it out on the approved ideological drums.

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