Friday, October 30, 2009

Thoughts on Academic Freedom and
the Role of the University

“Never discuss religion or politics.” How many times has this admonishment been tossed around, yet how often do we heed it? Perhaps in the business context we are more careful to avoid such “touchy” subjects, but what about social settings? What about the academy? The ideals of academic freedom serve to foster and protect all opinions about potentially divisive issues, yet does this protection rooted in the penumbra of the First Amendment really achieve the results of open and honest dialogue?[1] Does it even matter?

In a recent address at Columbia University, University of Chicago President, Robert Zimmer discussed the purpose of academic freedom. He said the following:

“[I]t is universities’ openness to ideas, to analytic debate, to rigor, and to questioning, and the provision of an umbrella, and in fact a safe haven, for clashing thought and perspectives, that best illuminate societal, scientific, and humanistic issues. . . The greatest contributions universities can make to society over the long run are the ideas and discoveries of faculty and students that emanate from the resulting intellectual ferment [] . . . If this is the purpose of universities, the purpose of academic freedom is precisely to preserve this openness of inquiry and freedom of thought. In other words, academic freedom is designed to protect and preserve for the long run the unique capacity of universities to contribute to society.” (emphasis added)

President Zimmer’s thoughts are noble. My question is not about their veracity, for I sincerely believe he is absolutely correct. My question is whether the university environment is truly living up to the model as a “safe haven for clashing thought and perspectives”? I hesitate to say, but my feeling is that they do not.

I do not purport to speak for everyone, but only to relate my own experiences and perspective. In any context where I am under the authority of another, I am reticent to offer an ideological opinion which sharply diverges from my authority-figure. This is not always the case, but more often than not, it is. The reason is simple; ideology is the foundation upon which we construct our worldviews, and a professor’s worldviews –naturally – animate his conclusions about his subject matter. More to the point, if my opinions are perceived as flawed in their reasoning, which could easily be the case when my opinions are stemming from an ideology that deviates from the professor’s, what will the conclusion about my scholastic aptitude be? Whether science, law, business, etc., we are all subject to bias. Even in our modern enlightened era, there is cause for caution.

Maybe this caution is healthy. Maybe cautious and guarded opinions serve to encourage quiet reflection before speaking. This is a worthy end, is it not? Unfortunately, I do not think the bias within the academy is an even split down the ideological middle. If it were, then the opportunity for reflection would be given fairly consistently to students of all worldviews. However, in many areas of the academy, there is a perceived “politically correct” worldview which garners dominant support. This trend may foster open dialogue amongst those who find themselves in the majority, but is the minority voice likewise fostered? Is there anything that can be done to encourage a true safe haven?

Perhaps a benefit of such a reality is that individuals who seek to develop new ideas will find mentors with whom they share ideological views. Within this context, there can be a mutual sharpening of minds and arrival at ideas or innovations which will contribute to society. This begs the question, though, of what role the university should play. Is the university about benefitting the student-consumer, in which case the student comes to the university with his ideas and seeks guidance as to how to achieve his goals? Or, does the university primarily serve society, in which case the student should come to the university as tabula rasa for the purpose of forming ideas which will provide the best outcome to society? Of course, the answer could be a blend of these two ideas.

President Zimmer noted the German model of the university is the modern research institution we know today. This model comprises three principles: 1) the goal of education is to teach students how to think (not simply master a craft); 2) integration of research and teaching is central to teaching students how to think; and 3) the university must be independent from the state. These principles suggest, to me, that the primary purpose of a university is to serve the student as an individual. This educated student will be in the best position to benefit society as a critically-thinking-citizen. Society ultimately derives the benefit of the education experience, yet the party immediately served is the student, not society. If that is the case, my mentor-model makes sense. It does not result in a truly free and open forum for clashing ideas, but it does give the student as a consumer the product sought.

If the university is primarily serving the student-consumer as an individual, what happens to academic freedom? Does it lose some of its importance? I think the answer is a quiet “yes.” The principles of academic freedom are still of paramount importance in many contexts, but perhaps the principles merely provide the safe-guard wherein a member of the university community has recourse should he endeavor to challenge the status quo. This protective mechanism is, I believe, a far cry from an umbrella sheltering the exchange of differing perspectives.


[1] See Griswold v. Conn., 381 U.S. 479, 482-83 (1965) (“[T]he state may not, consistently with the spirit of the First Amendment, contract the spectrum of available knowledge. The right of right of freedom of speech and press includes not only the right to utter or to print, but the right to distribute, the right to receive, the right to read . . . and freedom of inquiry, freedom of thought, and freedom to teach . . . indeed the freedom of the entire university community. Without those peripheral rights the specific rights would be less secure.”).


David Hutchinson said...

Kelly, have you gone and read The Closing of the American Mind, as you indicated you might?

Nice essay whatever the case.

Brandon said...

I have little to add. I'm still too near it all, and have too bad of a taste in my mouth. But I agree with Mr. Hutchinson on the quality of your essay.

I like this site sometimes:

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

I'm sorry to say I have not yet had the pleasure, Dave.

Brandon, as always, you point me to very interesting resources!

Thank you, both.

Gabriel said...

Interesting. Just a few thoughts...

First, conceptually, I think it's necessary to seperate out "the university" or, rather, undergraduate education from law school education. By the time students reach the legal academy, they have already been constituted (for better or worse) by their experiences in a four-year institution. Arguably, some students do "shift" a bit when they get to law school. I have heard more than a few of my former classmates and some of my current students remark that they've become "more conservative" since coming to law school. My suspicion is that it has a lot to do with students being exposed to "real world" problems in a more concrete fashion (especially if they work during law school). It makes them skeptical of the liberally bent ideological constructs they were taught to see the world through. Also, I think once students start to see why certain laws and policies are the way they are (particularly in the areas of trade, antitrust, finance, etc.), they also find themselves siding more with views traditionally embraced by conservatives.


Gabriel said...

Second, I think you're on to something with your identification of "ideology" as the foundation of students' (and teachers') worldviews. That is most surely the case with a supermajority of them and it is distressing. It's distressing because from grade school on up, we teach students to be ideologues, i.e., to embrace a set of ideas and hold to them regardless of whether or not they align with reality. Ideologies are not "open"; they cannot be "questioned" because their premises are protected by a shield of thoughtlessness. This why so much academic debate across disciplines is tantamount to drivel. In the law classroom we see this played out all of the time: I think abortion is wrong/I think abortion is a woman's right/Shutup/No, you shutup/etc. Neither side has anything fundamental to say because neither is speaking the same language. They each have their "ideas" and they're sticking to them. The exchange is pointless. At best, it's an exercise in empty rhetoric.

Now, with that said, I am not saying there aren't non-ideological reasons to be against abortion or even for gay rights. Not everyone is an ideologue, but most people are and there's very little in contemporary education which tries to wrest people from being ideologues (though certain disciplines certainly try to pull people from one ideological camp into another). I sometimes wonder--in the legal arena at least--if fields like law and economics, for example, gained so much currency because it was perceived as a non-ideological means of studying the law and making evaluative judgments between good law and bad law (in an economic/efficiency sense). That doesn't mean that law and economics always produces "morally right" results; but since moral theory/ethics is controlled by the ideologues, the law and economics folks are content to just pass it by without notice.


Gabriel said...

And last, speaking only from my limited teaching experience, I am well aware that students come with their "baggage" and, to be honest, I have to be fine with that. I am not going to change their worldviews or pull them out from their ideological fetters over the course of the semester. I do try to tell them upfront, however, where I am coming from (at least in the context of the courses I teach). As I say, I am on the side of economic efficiency, limited regulation, and expanding global trade. I think the aggregate benefits outweigh the perceived harms. I know those aren't the only issues to take into consideration. I make that clear as well. Students can take pro-labor, environmentalist, socialistic, etc. positions if they want. I am aware that debate will somtimes be pointless across the ideological divides, which is why I try to bring it back to matters of economics and efficiency. At least there some reasonable discussion can take place. As for what happens beyond the classroom, as I tell them: if you think economic efficiency ought to take a backseat to protecting small sectors of our job market at the expense of millions of consumers, then keep voting Democrat.

David Hutchinson said...

I think another distinction needs to be made, at the outset of a discussion like this, between the liberal arts, broadly defined, and the hard sciences (physics; mathematics). The latter impose a method that transcends ideology, and gain precepts through verification (pace Gore, who gained a Nobel doing the exact opposite).

With respect to liberal arts faculty in undergraduate institutions, I have less faith than you that an extant status quo, when that status quo is substantive rather than procedural (that is to say when it made up of ideological content) will foster open debate among the majority that embodies that status quo. What instead you get is an echo chamber that does not examine itself and dismisses, rather than engages, contrary views. Now it happens today that the relevant status quo is substantive and it is liberal. But it has been and could be again otherwise. In either direction it is not a good thing. What is needed is an ethos in the universities among liberal arts faculty that is committed to fostering a certain kind of learning environment, a procedural status quo, that requires students to confront at least two views on an issue. And not in the service of some 'equal time' aspiration for the sake of symmetry, but so that the students can become critical thinkers. The outcome faculty should be interested in is the development of critical thinking skills, not in rallying naive intellectual conscripts to their social views.

By way of illustration: In July of the summer I came to law school I was still finishing my undergraduate work. I was taking a class on criminal justice. During one class session, the professor (a very smart and capable Harvard Law grad and a man much involved in the field of criminal justice)mentioned the problem of male on male prison rape. Then he said that conjugal visits would solve the problem. Solve the problem. I am a heterosexual dude. And it seemed to me that in prison, in the absence of conjugal visits, there were a number things I could do to simulate the impossible activity of copulating with a woman short of raping another man. And I also recalled the social science that claims rape is primarily an assertion of power, not sex. And so I asked the professor, in open class and after he had just made his conjugal visit claim, whether the nature of rape and the ubiquity of prison rape did not suggest it was not amenable to eradication via conjugal visits.

Profssor apparently wasn't used to such questions. He did not entertain my hypothesis that prison rape may be primarily, or at least partly, about exerting control, and at length suggested that if he had gotten to me sooner (I was an adult when I entered undergrad), he could have fixed me. Alas, I suppose.

Could it be that the professor was ideologically committed to gaining support for his view that conjugal visits should be permitted? It seems more likely that than a man of his learning did not think of what I had thought of. And maybe too he was offended at being challenged.

However much I could benefit from some species of fixing, and whatever the explanation for the professor's reaction, that night the professor did not do his job, and all the students in the class were worse off for it. Either he could have given us the benefit of his knowledge as to why my hypothesis was false, or he could have said to the class it was an interesting thought that they should think about; now back to the syllabus.

"Never discuss religion or politics" is sound advice in social settings. In liberal arts colleges, discussion of religion and politics, and some other things besides, is what must be done.

But this can't be forgotten either: discussion in general, and discussion monitored and directed by a professor dedicated to a procedural critical thinking model, should be done only on the far side of learning; deep reading on a given subject by thinkers of various views.