Monday, July 24, 2006

Academic Freedom and Truth

One of my favorite literary critics, Stanley Fish, opines in the New York Times about the definition of academic freedom. It isn't about protecting a professor's right to teach anything he or she wants to teach, argues Fish. "In fact, academic freedom has nothing to do with content. It is not a subset of the general freedom of Americans to say anything they like (so long as it is not an incitement to violence or is treasonous or libelous)."

It's not about free speech at all. Academic freedom is about protecting professors from those who would decide what they ought to study. "The freedom, that is, to subject any body of material, however unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis."

Professors can study anything they want, they just can't advocate for anything. That would cross the line into indoctrination, Fish says.

The whole issue started with Kevin Barrett, a University of Wisconsin Madison lecturer who apparently tells his students that he thinks the American government caused those nasty 9/11 events. The problem with the debate that followed Mr. Barrett's radio interview, in which he described his curriculum was that the two opposing sides that lined up to support or castigate Barrett were arguing the wrong things. Fish summarizes the two sides:
Mr. Barrett’s critics argue that academic freedom has limits and should not be invoked to justify the dissemination of lies and fantasies. Mr. Barrett’s supporters (most of whom are not partisans of his conspiracy theory) insist that it is the very point of an academic institution to entertain all points of view, however unpopular. (This was the position taken by the university’s provost, Patrick Farrell, when he ruled on July 10 that Mr. Barrett would be retained: “We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas.”)
By Fish's logic, Barrett should be sacked for crossing that indoctrination line. He's very clear here, using the example of astrology as a classroom subject:
The distinction I am making — between studying astrology and proselytizing for it — is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.
But couldn't Barrett argue that he was teaching a truth, and not a political angle? Isn't that exactly what Barrett and any advocate of "Intelligent Design" would say?

When Fish describes these beliefs as viewpoints, he's letting his liberal side show through -- a conservative (or a radical leftist for that matter) would not admit the possibility of being wrong. To conservatives, there is right and there is wrong. Truth and lies. No viewpoints. Viewpoints, like opinions, show a lack or conviction, weakness.

Fish notes that Barrett is a member of the group Scholars for 9/11 Truth. He writes:
Is the fact of this group’s growing presence on the Internet a reason for studying it in a course on 9/11? Sure. Is the instructor who discusses the group’s arguments thereby endorsing them? Not at all. It is perfectly possible to teach a viewpoint without embracing it and urging it. But the moment a professor does embrace and urge it, academic study has ceased and been replaced by partisan advocacy. And that is a moment no college administration should allow to occur.
I agree with Fish, of course. I do think that's the way to teach -- talk about issues and get students to examine them from every side. Give them the tools to argue and analyze. And ultimately, I agree with Fish's unofficial tenet of postmodernism -- that truth does exist, but no one of us has the tools to prove any given truth. (This issue of truth is precisely what conservative P.J. O'Rourke says is so good about spy novelist Charles McCarry -- see my review below.)

But isn't that what faith is for? And isn't that why the Right has control of all branches of government now? Liberals have known for decades that they need the strength of their Commie predecessors' convictions, but they just can't get their papers in order. I'm betting Fish, too would endorse some liberal faith, but he'd tell us to make sure we kept it out of the classroom.

No postmodernist with half a brain is obstinate enough to spend any time arguing that up isn't really up -- we all agree on things for all sorts of conveniences. Any argument on something we don't agree on rests on a series of agreements about other things. No one can go around (although I had friends in high school pull this shit on me) denying basic realities. It gets old. Postmodernists like Fish, and anyone else with his convictions and a good education relies on faith anyway. We just won't stand up for it.

In the end, most of these controversial "viewpoints" or "truths" that try to make their way into the classroom -- be they intelligent design or 9/11 conspiracy theories -- will be dropped for lack of evidence. What smart Christians and conspiracy nuts should do instead of shouting about how they're right is to convince people that they shouldn't stop looking for evidence to support their crackpot ideas. Again it's about faith.

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