Stanley Fish on the five schools of thought about academic freedom

When we speak about “academic freedom” what, exactly, do we mean? How far should academic freedom extend? How do we know when someone claiming it has actually abused it?

Those are the big questions that Professor Stanley Fish poses and tries to answer in his latest book, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution. “I am interested,” he writes, “in the ways people talk about academic freedom and in the presuppositions (about truth, the purpose of education, and the social/political function of the academy) implied by their talk.”

In the book, Professor Fish, who first came to prominence decades ago as the head of Duke’s English department and now holds a law professorship at Florida International, identifies five different schools of thought about academic freedom. They range from the humble “It’s Just a Job” school to the completely unrestrained “Academic Freedom as Revolution” school.

Now, some readers are probably thinking, “Stanley Fish is a left-wing zealot and therefore I’m not interested in his ranting on academic freedom.”

Put that notion away; it’s entirely mistaken. The book gives a cool and sober analysis of the claims people make on behalf of academic freedom.

Perhaps surprisingly, Fish declares himself to favor the “It’s Just a Job” school and spars brilliantly with professors who, as he sees it, undermine the academic enterprise by extending the concept of academic freedom far beyond any sensible boundaries.

If you’ve read Fish’s previous book, Save the World on Your Own Time, however, you won’t be surprised at his minimalist stance regarding academic freedom.

Let’s look at his five schools.

It’s Just a Job. Those who think about academic freedom this way believe that educational institutions should allow faculty members freedom to teach their subjects as they think best and pursue their research interests without interference. (And, Fish shows, it’s only an ought: academic freedom has no legal existence apart from the First Amendment, which protects faculty and non-faculty alike from governmental interference with speech and writing.)

Professors have very important work to do in discovering and transmitting knowledge, but that doesn’t give them free rein to write or say just anything they please so long as it’s within the universe of ideas. Fish puts it this way: “Their obligations and aspirations are defined by the distinctive task—the advancement of knowledge—they are trained and paid to perform, that is, by contract and by the course catalog rather than by a vision of democracy or world peace.”

So, what should we think about this case? In 2009, sociology professor William Robinson of UC Santa Barbara sent an email to his students in which he compared Israeli actions in Gaza with the Nazi quelling of the Warsaw uprising in 1944. An appropriate exercise of academic freedom, or not?

Fish argues that from the “It’s Just a Job” perspective, Robinson’s communication was far outside the proper scope of academic freedom. He was not trying to enlighten his students or suggesting, “here’s one way of thinking about events in the Middle East.” Instead, he was telling them they should regard the Israelis as aggressors and the Palestinians as victims.

No matter how passionate Robinson may be or how certain he is that his position is the one that’s just, he went over the line and can’t hide behind the shield of “academic freedom.”

It’s for the common good. This school is rooted in the 1915 Statement on Academic Freedom by the American Association of University Professors, which maintained that “the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results.”

Therefore, we must not allow educational institutions to stifle professors’ academic freedom in any way; to do so would be tantamount to putting up roadblocks on the highway of progress. But if we permit academic freedom, it helps make (again, in the AAUP’s view) public opinion “more self-critical and more circumspect.”

Some advocates of this school even advance the claim that academic freedom and democracy go hand in hand. Fish quotes Professor Robert Post who argues that academic freedom for the faculty enables the rest of the society to acquire “democratic competence.”

Fish doesn’t buy it. “Elitism is the word that comes to mind here,” he writes. “It is one thing to say that academic work should not be hostage to popular opinion. It is quite another to say that popular opinion is unredeemable unless academics correct and refine it.”

Quite so, and I would add that many of the worst ideas that popular opinion has come to accept have been the brainchildren of academics. MIT’s haughty, know-it-all professor Jonathan Gruber, for example, helped mightily in first creating and then selling the public on that monstrous federal intrusion into health care laughably called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Many, many other dreadful ideas we live with have sprung from the brows of professors.

Professors create both good and bad ideas, as do people who aren’t professors. There is no reason why they should enjoy any special freedom.

Academic exceptionalism. This school of thought begins with the premise of the “common good” school and expands on it. Since professors are so crucial to the advancement of knowledge and social progress, it follows not merely that they must not be interfered with, but that they should be above laws and restrictions that pertain to ordinary people.

To illustrate, Fish recounts the legal battle in Urofsky v. Gilmore, involving a Virginia law prohibiting state employees from viewing sexually explicit material while using state-owned computers. A group of professors challenged the law when it was applied to a professor who claimed that he needed to access porn for his research. Plaintiffs argued that while the law was valid as to most state employees, it violated the academic freedom of faculty members.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals did not go for that argument, holding that the concept of academic freedom had no legal power to trump Virginia’s statute. Fish and I agree. He writes, “It is reasonable for academics, like any other group of workers, to desire working conditions that afford maximum freedom of action, but the realization of that desire is a matter of contract or disciplinary convention, not of law.”

Precisely. Doing the academic job does not mean that you’re exceptional and therefore entitled to set your own rules.

Academic freedom as critique.  Now we have sailed into far left waters. Many far left academics see their role as not merely teaching or finding new knowledge, but of exposing (critiquing) all society’s wrongs.  Fish explains: “Academic freedom is understood by this school as a protection for dissent and the scope of dissent must extend to the very distinctions and boundaries the academy presently enforces.”

Thus, academic freedom is a shield for leftist professors to say or do whatever they think is necessary to get society out of its “conservative” rut. No need to respect norms of civility, academic fields, or anything else. Professor Robinson’s opinion mongering was protected by academic freedom, members of this school would say.

Fish rightly argues that this version of academic freedom is indefensible and can only undermine real academic freedom.

Revolution. Finally, there is a school of thought that what academic freedom is really about is fomenting revolution. In fact, the adjective “academic” disappears with these people. As Fish explains this notion, “The standard views of academic freedom sequester academics in an intellectual ghetto where, like trained monkeys, they perform obedient and sterile routines. It follows that one can only be true to the academy by breaking free of its constraints.”

How? One professor who exemplifies this school is Denis Rancourt, the University of Ottawa physics professor who decided that what his students really needed was not a course on physics, but one on revolutionary activity. So he “squatted” the course he was contractually obligated to teach in favor of teaching his students to be leftwing activists.

Fish doesn’t have any sympathy for people like Rancourt. “What Rancourt wants professors and students to be autonomous from is the university’s monitoring of whatever they choose to do.” I agree. However virtuous you think your work, you are not entitled to do it if the people who pay you and let you use their property don’t consent. You should instead, referring again to Fish’s earlier book, save the world on your own time (and at your own expense).

Where does this leave our understanding of “academic freedom”?

First, that most claims by professors that someone or something has violated their academic freedom are groundless. It’s extremely rare to find a case these days where an academic is disciplined or terminated for doing the kind of work (teaching and scholarship) that academics are supposed to do.

Overwhelmingly, when professors gripe about violations of academic freedom, as in the Steven Salaita affair last year, it’s because they have chosen to act in ways unbefitting of scholars.

Second, because academic freedom is an occupational aspiration rather than a legal right, educational institutions are free to decide how much freedom they’ll allow faculty members. It’s conceivable that some might choose a Rancourt-like “Do your own thing” version, although I doubt they’d last long.

Others might so limit the faculty that “the job” amounted to nothing more than rote teaching. That approach probably would appeal to very few scholars, but those who agreed would have no grounds for complaint and could seek a friendlier academic environment if they became dissatisfied.

Most would settle somewhere between those extremes. In short, academic freedom doesn’t have to be a one-size-fits-all concept. We can and should leave it to wrangling and negotiations among the interested parties.