Review: Versions of Academic Freedom

Versions of Academic Freedom, Stanley Fish. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Summary: An analysis of the idea of academic freedom, identifying five schools of thought, arguing for limiting this to the core professional duties of an academic in one’s institution and disciplinary field.

The relevance of this work is clearly evident in the presence of regular stories of how academic freedom in our universities is threatened or complaints about particular actions of faculty that are rationalized as “academic freedom.” What can or cannot be taught in a classroom? Can a faculty member email her students about the need to protest in favor of Palestinian rights against Israel? Is it an infringement on academic freedom to prohibit wearing political clothing and buttons in a class one is teaching? Is it proper for a faculty member to disclose one’s political or religious beliefs as they bear on the course material at the beginning of a course? Should a faculty member be punished for publishing research findings arrived at according to the standards for research in one’s field if those findings challenge accepted social norms and the paradigms of one’s discipline?

At least part of the answer, Stanley Fish maintains, is how one defines “academic freedom.” For him, it hinges both on what we understand to be the scope of the duties of an academic and how expansive our idea of freedom is. In this work, drawn from the Campbell Lectures sponsored by Rice University, Fish delineates five schools of thought from a very narrow definition of academic freedom to a very expansive one and argues that only the narrowest reflects what can really be called “academic freedom.”

The five schools of thought are:

  1. The “It’s a job” school. Educators provide a service of advancing through research and instruction a particular body of knowledge in one’s discipline as specified by the course catalog and syllabus. Within the scope of their professional duties they should enjoy freedom to do their job. They are not inculcating moral values, mobilizing social justice warriors, or training citizens to uphold some vision of democracy. Such things, while commendable in their role as citizens and enjoying First Amendment protection do not fall under the scope of academic freedom.
  2. The “For the common good” school. Those in this school, going back to the 1915 AAUP Declaration of Principles would go beyond the protection of scholarly work done within the scope of one’s professional duties to emphasize the academy’s role in upholding democratic values and principles of justice against the “tyranny of public opinion.”
  3. The “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school. This argues that by virtue of training, gifts, and character, academics are exceptional persons who not only correct popular opinion but are not subject to the same laws and restrictions of ordinary citizens. One example is the Virginia state law prohibiting access of state employees to pornography on state-owned computers without supervisory permission. Professors argued “academic freedom” rights to warrant declaring the law invalid for them.
  4. The “Academic freedom as critique” school. This school, with Judith Butler as a leading representative, argues that the norms and standards of the academy and one’s discipline are inherently conservative, and academic freedom protects dissent from or critique of those norms. The work of a scholar is to interrogate those norms.
  5. The “Academic freedom as revolution” school. This school invokes academic freedom to protect the scholar whose critique challenges and seeks the overthrow of corruption in the academy and society for the sake of social justice. This has been used to justify “academic squatting” in which professors, instead of teaching the advertised course, use the classroom to advance their critique and to advocate revolutionary activity.

Fish places himself in the “It’s a job” school, contending that this is the only context in which the protections of academic freedom apply. Academic freedom exists to further scholarship. Period. While other aims may be laudable, they do not fall under the rubric of academic freedom. Fish observes both the hubris and the dislocation of the focus of academic work in the “common good” school. This places academic work in the service of something else. Against both the critique and revolution schools, Fish does not dispute the conservative character of disciplines but emphasizes that new disciplines do emerge from old as “existing norms preside over their own alteration,” citing as an example the rise of women’s studies. This approach is a safeguard against the unraveling of the university, which he believes would be the consequence if these approaches prevail.

Finally, he returns to the idea of exceptionalism–the idea that academic freedom protects individuals from legal requirements with which ordinary citizens must comply. Much of this is a discussion of public employment law and specific legal cases. The basic message here is that academic freedom is a professional norm and not a legal right. Much of one’s professional duties are contractually established. Speech in the course of one’s employment is different than the exercise of First Amendment rights, with which academic freedom is often confused. One can’t depart from the subject matter of a course to talk about whatever one wants. On the other hand, the results of research undertaken as part of one’s duties, when conducted according to disciplinary practice, cannot be “directed or scripted, by the government.”

Fish’s analysis did two things for me. One was to bring greater clarity to the terminology of “academic freedom.” Instead of an umbrella term to cover many kinds of activity, Fish argues for a focused used, referring to the professional duties of an academic as well as the core function of a university as Fish understands it:

“The academy is the place where knowledge is advanced, where the truth about matters physical, conceptual, and social is sought. That’s the job, and that’s also the aspirational norm: the advancement of knowledge and the search for truth. The values of advancing knowledge and discovering truth are not extrinsic to academic activity; they constitute it.”

The other thing Fish did was make clear that academic freedom has no legal basis, but rather a shared consensus that protects professors, not in anything they do, but in the performance of their scholarly work. In particular, it seems that disciplines, college administrations and boards, and the state ideally ought to share a consensus that it is vital to protect the freedom of academics to pursue scholarly work without dictating the results of that work, including teaching that reflects the current state of learning in a discipline.

I would like to see Fish update this work, written in 2014, addressing the actions of state legislatures to dictate what may and may not be taught in courses. Traditionally, these are decisions made by departments and colleges in establishing a course of study, including the content of courses according to the current body of learning relevant to the course subject. The “it’s a job approach” in this context makes faculty the mouthpiece of a state ideology in the guise of complying with specified course context. Often this means excluding material that constitutes a significant part of the body of knowledge in a discipline. More troubling, it implies that only certain lines of inquiry with state-approved results will be supported. While Fish rightly, I believe, rejects more expansive schools of academic freedom, he fails to answer how to protect the more circumscribed idea of academic freedom he upholds.

One thought on “Review: Versions of Academic Freedom

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2022 | Bob on Books

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