Mon Nov 24th, 2008 at 02:58:51 PM EST
An interesting article on the New York Times website.
"An Authoritative Word on Academic Freedom"
and it can be found on Stanley Fish's blog "Think Again" (link below).
More than a few times in these columns I have tried to deflate the balloon of academic freedom by arguing that it was not an absolute right or a hallowed principle, but a practical and limited response to the particular nature of intellectual work.
Now, in a new book -- "For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom," to be published in 2009 -- two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.
The authors' most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: "We argue that the concept of Academic freedom . . . differs fundamentally from the individual First Amendment rights that present themselves so vividly to the contemporary mind." The difference is that while free speech rights are grounded in the constitution, academic freedom rights are "grounded . . . in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education and in the special conditions necessary for faculty to fulfill those purposes."
In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.
Indeed, to emphasize the "personal" is to mistake the nature of academic freedom, which belongs, Finkin and Post declare, to the enterprise, not to the individual. If academic freedom were "reconceptualized as an individual right," it would make no sense -- why should workers in this enterprise have enlarged rights denied to others? -- and support for it "would vanish" because that support, insofar as it exists, is for the project and its promise (the production of new knowledge) and not for those who labor within it. Academics do not have a general liberty, only "the liberty to practice the scholarly profession" and that liberty is hedged about by professional norms and responsibilities.
I find this all very congenial. Were Finkin and Post's analysis internalized by all faculty members, the academic world would be a better place, if only because there would be fewer instances of irresponsible or overreaching teachers invoking academic freedom as a cover for their excesses.