Thursday, November 09, 2006

Yes, Horowitz Is Defeated, Too... But Now What?

In today’s The Chronicle of Higher Education, David Horowitz concedes that his “Academic Bill of Rights” campaign has failed—by claiming victory. That’s to be expected from someone whose essay “The Art of Political War” is one of Karl Rove’s favorite pamphlets, but it does throw a new blanket of confusion over the debates on academic freedom that have increased in America since 9/11 and the inception of the Patriot Act.

With that in mind, I don’t want to talk much about Horowitz or his “movement,” for he and it are more of an annoyance, a side-show, these days. He glommed on to the idea of using a popular misunderstanding of “academic freedom” as a means of bringing political control into the classroom—but his attempts have failed. Though the “Academic Bill of Rights” is still before a number of state legislatures (and is even included as an advisory in a Federal education bill), its likelihood of passing anywhere was small even before the election last Tuesday. Now it is nil. His companion “Student Bill of Rights” has also failed to gain traction. The only university he can claim as adopting it is Temple, and even that is a bit of a stretch.

What I want to talk about is how we in academia can move forward post-Horowitz, making the case for “academic freedom” clear and moving our own understanding back towards its function within the public sphere.

Too many of us in academia, and for too long, have looked upon “academic freedom” as a right, forgetting that it carries with it specific responsibilities. This is unfortunate, to say the least, and needs changing.

When the concept of “academic freedom” was introduced through the American Association of University Professor’s 1915 “General Declaration of Principles,” it was presented within the context of purposes:
These are three in number.
A. To promote inquiry and advance the sum of human knowledge.
B. To provide general instruction to the students.
C. To develop experts for various branches of the public service.

Each leads to a specific enunciation of academic-freedom rights and the reasons for them that stem from these purposes:
In all[…] domains of knowledge, the first condition of progress is complete and unlimited freedom to pursue inquiry and publish its results. Such freedom is the breath in the nostrils of all scientific activity.[…]
It is clear[… that] confidence [of students in their teachers] will be impaired if there is suspicion on the part of the student that the teacher is not expressing himself fully or frankly, or that college and university teachers in general are a repressed and intimidated class who dare not speak with that candor and courage which youth always demands in those whom it is to esteem.
It is obvious that[…] the scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion. To be of use to the legislator or the administrator, he must enjoy their complete confidence in the disinterestedness of his conclusions.

In three areas, and for clear reasons, scholars need the protection of the right of academic freedom.


This also implies that we must be active in those areas if we are to be provided such protection. We cannot claim “academic freedom” protection, in other words, under the First Amendment assumption that almost any expression warrants protecting; we can only claim protection when we are providing something more than simply individual participation in the debates within the public sphere.

Not all of us in academia are involved directly in scholarly pursuits, so we can’t consistently claim protection via “academic freedom” in that first instance. Almost all of us, however, do teach. We continue to need “academic freedom” in our classrooms or we become nothing more than “facilitators,” the word used in some of the new for-profit online “universities” for the people who oversee the courses. In such cases, the entire structure and rationale of a “university” changes from one of a community of inquiry that carries into the classroom, becoming instead a purpose-driven institution where concentration is simply on mastery of pre-defined skill sets. Each of us, as a result of our research and through our teaching, performs an important role within the public sphere and, therefore, we operate in a role slightly different from that of the citizen. We carry a burden of responsibility to the peer structures that certify us, to the students who have relied on us, and to those in the public sphere who rely on the honesty of our contributions. In this sense, “academic freedom” is no special freedom, but a recognition of the purposes and responsibilities behind our efforts.

One of the greatest problems we in academia face right now in terms of academic freedom is that we have too long been looking inward, protecting our right rather than using it. There are few of us, these days, who can honestly wear the mantle of “public intellectual,” participating in the public sphere in a manner demonstrating to the average citizen just what it is we do when we participate in our research or even when we teach. As a result, we have been open to the type of caricature Horowitz presents, of professors making six-figure incomes and working nine hours a week.

We may be coming into a new age right now, an eclipsing of the reactionary agenda that has dominated the American public sphere for a quarter of a century, an agenda that, quite frankly, has cowed academia, sending too many of us scurrying for the protection of our ivory towers. It may be time for all of us, no matter our political persuasion, to recognize once again the importance of the academic within greater American society and to act on that—outside the walls of our schools. It is time we started taking John Dewey, and his concept of the integral contribution of education to a successful democracy seriously.

When we do, “academic freedom” will start to mean something to the population as a whole, and people will begin to see it as something worth protecting. Until we do, we will continue to have to fight off periodic attacks by people like David Horowitz.

And that, though he has been defeated this go-around, is getting old.

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