Monday, December 20, 2010

Why Conservatives Are Wrong about Penn State's HR 64

In response to my critique of the essay by him and Ashley Thorne, Steve Balch has written a response which often distorts what I believe, and offers a twisted picture of academic freedom.

Balch correctly describes the historic position of the AAUP's founders, that the scientific spirit is “the persuasive argument” for academic freedom. I would cynically add that the AAUP embraced science so strongly because scientific progress was seen as more popular and easy to gain approval for than the idea of political freedom. But political freedom--the idea that professors should be able to criticize the government and express controversial ideas in the classroom without losing their jobs--is the real meaning of academic freedom. The scientific model was just an easier defense to make for that freedom. The truth is that the greatest threats to academic freedom over the years were aimed at professors punished for their extramural speech, not any research or classroom statements.

Balch claims that all of the AAUP statements are “primarily admonitions to the faculty.” Nothing could be further from the truth. AAUP statements overwhelmingly proclaim how institutions should function and what individual faculty rights are. At its origins, such as the 1915 Statement, the AAUP included a few declarations about how faculty should act. The AAUP has gradually reduced such declarations in its statements about policy, out of a legitimate fear that admonitions to faculty have been used to justify punishing faculty deemed guilty of some vague charge of “indoctrination” or other thought crimes.

And where the AAUP makes its rare admonitions, such as in a tiny proportion of the 1915 statement, it is clear that these admonitions must be moral duties of the faculty member and not something imposed by institutions: “The responsibility of the university teacher is primarily to the public itself, and to the judgment of his own profession; and while, with respect to certain external conditions of his vocation, he accepts a responsibility to the authorities of the institution in which he serves, in the essentials of his professional activity his duty is to the wider public to which the institution itself is morally amenable.”

So the AAUP's founders would disagree strongly with Balch and the NAS about the need to give administrators powerful authority to control how professors teach. Yes, professors have a moral duty to teach well, but it is a duty that the individual must fulfill.

Balch writes, “John Wilson apparently believes that administrative correction of erring faculty members should be ruled out across the board as inherently too dangerous.”

Absolutely not. I never said such a thing, and I do not believe it. First, “correction” is a fundamental right protected by academic freedom. Administrators certainly have the right to express to faculty members, privately or publicly, their views about pedagogy and the instruction provided by faculty. What academic freedom protects faculty from is formal punishment for expressing controversial views in class. That's what HR 64 is all about, and what David Horowitz is demanding.

According to Balch, “total immunity from oversight is never healthy.” That's certainly true. But there is no total immunity from oversight for faculty. The entire process of hiring and tenure is a form of oversight, based on faculty control and utilizing academic rather than political values.

Also, formal punishment is appropriate when erring faculty members are failing to do their jobs or are violating the rights of others, especially students. These are the “duties correlative with rights” that the AAUP recognizes. So, a professor who fails to teach the subject matter of the class, or who is incompetent at the job, has no defense. And HR 64 (along with numerous AAUP statements) is clear about this fact. If a professor grades a student based on politics, or prohibits students from disagreeing for that reason, then that's wrong and it is appropriate to step in. But what we're debating here with HR 64 has nothing to do with grading or student speech. It's all about classroom assignments and whether administrators can force faculty to change their syllabi according to political criteria.

Balch writes, “As for screening Al Gore’s 'Inconvenient Truth' in an English department writing class, it certainly smacks of abuse to us – a sentiment we bet would be concurred in by a large majority of working academics. There would be nothing wrong with administrators at least asking some questions about it.”

This was an English 202A class called, “Effective Writing in the Social Sciences,” and I can't imagine why watching an Oscar-winning documentary about global warming and asking students to write about it is an “abuse” to the NAS or to the “large majority of working academics.” How is it an abuse? I assume Balch doesn't agree with David Horowitz's insane theory that global warming isn't related to the social sciences. So where is the abuse? Should a professor be forced to assign a documentary or readings that say global warming is a hoax, even though that position is scientifically baseless? Personally, I would love to see more professors, left and right, teaching a diverse range of perspectives. What worries me is the compulsion to do it.

The Failings of “Compulsory Debate”

The mistake Balch and others make is to assume that if some idea is good, then forcing all faculty to do it, with a vast administrative apparatus, is also good. That's completely wrong. While we should encourage faculty to offer a wide range of ideas in the classroom, we can't force it. As David French once noted when he was head of FIRE, “A faculty member’s academic freedom is unquestionably threatened if a school requires an individual professor to teach in a more balanced manner.”

The reason is simple: the demand for debate never ends. If you have to include the anti-global warming folks in a debate about global warming, then you also need to include left-wing critics of Al Gore who want to abolish capitalism, along with every other position along the spectrum. If a professor is forced to include classroom assignments doubting global warming, then why not force business professors to assign communist literature or force biology professors to assign creationist writings or force history professors to assign Holocaust deniers? Once you take away the professor's ability to decide what is a good work to assign, whom do you trust to impose this on all faculty?

One of the essential jobs of a professor is to decide when a film or a text meets the quality levels adequate for a class. Forcing everything to be debated with every point of view ulitimately is pure chaos—and the result is likely to be that only politically powerful ideas are the ones imposed by higher-ups, and only controversial professors will have debate forced upon them.

The irony in all of this is that I'm one of the few advocates of debating the conflicts in the classroom who actually teaches that way. I've assigned David Horowitz's critique of the Communist Manifesto along with that work in a class on political theory. I've assigned James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me along with Diane Ravitch's The Language Police in an education class.

Balch claims, “Scholars tend to have a high level of self-regard – and they should. But it can easily descend into a belief that nothing would be better than their being wholly left to themselves. John Wilson, Cary Nelson, and the AAUP seem to subscribe to this comforting conceit.” No scholars are, or should, left wholly to themselves.
Mark Bauerlein has written a short piece about HR 64 at Minding the Campus. According to Bauerlein, the reforms of HR 64 are bad because straying for even a minute from the syllabus might leave students on “uncertain grounds.”

Worse, Bauerlein fears, controversy might create “an antagonistic atmosphere in the room.” It's difficult to imagine a more mind-numbing, politically-correct approach to the college classroom than someone who worries about antagonism. The biggest problem in higher education is the lack of antagonism, the lack of debate, the pure apathy and robotic head-bobbing that goes on when students and faculty alike should be constantly questioning one another and starting arguments. And Bauerlein wants to do everything possible to stop antagonism, even if it means sacrificing academic freedom. But Bauerlein at least worries a little about the “unscrupulous administrator.”

Balch has no such healthy fear of centralizing power over the classroom, and concludes, “Academic freedom, to repeat, is an institutional as well as an individual possession. We should never lose sight of that.”

Actually, we should lose sight of that immediately. “Institutional academic freedom” is a fraud and a scam, one that the AAUP has never endorsed and I hope the NAS never will. Ironically, “institutional academic freedom” was created in the past few decades to justify prohibiting judicial scrutiny over affirmative action at public colleges, one of the things that the NAS strongly opposes. I defend affirmative action, but I think “institutional academic freedom” is a terrible justification for it.

Since the 1970s, administrators at public colleges and courts have sought to expand the idea of “institutional academic freedom” in order to increase their power and justify censorship of individual faculty and students. Yes, public colleges are deserving of some institutional autonomy under law to help protect individual academic freedom. But this is a very limited right, not one that supercedes the academic freedom of individuals, as the NAS imagines.

Several members of FIRE recently published a law review article explaining the history of “institutional academic freedom” and critiquing how it is used:
Perhaps Balch ought to read this important work before blindly declaring the importance of “institutional academic freedom.”

And perhaps Balch ought to read the long litany of administrator abuse on FIRE's website before he blithely proclaims, “Surely administrators are capable of recognizing flagrant abuses of academic authority,” and assumes that we can trust all administrators not to abuse this incredible power to control the classroom. Balch thinks we should trust administrators to determine whether or not faculty have a “scientific spirit.” But the “scientific spirit” is one of the vaguest terms I've ever come across.

Balch himself thinks that my consistent and quite traditional defense of individual liberty in the classroom is a stand that “had very little, analytically speaking, to recommend it.” If Balch can't see anything analytically worthy in my defense of academic freedom, how can we trust him (or any administrator) to intuit the “spirit of science” of a faculty member? I think Balch is wrong, and his stand would be dangerous to academic freedom in practice. But I would never question his analytic abilities or his “scientific spirit.” Instead, I would publicly criticize his views and try to persuade him to change his approach to the topic. That's what should happen, as Penn State is doing with these laudable reforms. Individual liberty and academic freedom ought to prevail, and we should not allow administrative control over faculty to prevent controversial views in the classroom.

1 comment:

Steve Balch said...

John Wilson and I have a fundamental disagreement. He believes that academic freedom should be based on “political freedom – the idea that professors should be able to criticize the government and express controversial ideas in the classroom…” I believe that it should be based on rigorous expertise and a commitment to the scientific spirit. In America everyone has political freedom. It doesn’t distinguish the scholar from the trustee or any other citizen, and thereby can’t protect the scholar from them. But the scholar has, or should have, within his academic field an analytic command the trustee and other non-scholars can’t match. This creates a distinction that gives academic freedom a defensible perimeter. I don’t see another.

Wilson views the founders of the AAUP cynically. They embraced, he says, the science argument so strongly because they doubted the public would swallow the political one. Perhaps they had a secret agenda, but I find in the language of the 1915 Declaration a level of passion hard to feign. Wilson correctly points out that their practical motive was to persuade laymen to respect faculty rights, but they did so through a grand act of abnegation with respect to what those rights entailed. By donning the mantle of science, the Declaration’s framers took their professional freedoms, and those of their colleagues, and bound them in tight strictures, laid out in the document at considerable length. They also emphasized the need for resolve in policing them. The Declaration ends by literarily characterizing the newborn AAUP as a “pledge”, not just to safeguard academic liberties but “with equal earnestness… [to] seek to maintain such standards of professional character, and of scientific integrity and competency, as shall make it a fit instrument for that service.” The Declaration’s invocations of academic freedom would have fallen without effect absent this powerful oath of professional self-denial and vigilance. Yes, the postwar statements of the AAUP have shed this tone, but that’s a measure of the contemporary problem.

The founders of the AAUP knew that academic freedom could endure only if its corollary obligations were professionally internalized and collectively enforced. If the responsibilities of the scholarly community were evaded, academic freedom would be lost. To again quote the Declaration, “If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and the unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims in the name of science from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for the uncritical and intemperate scholarship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others…” Well, there’s certainly been some slippage.

HR 64 had its value because, like the Declaration, its words explicitly and forcefully promoted internalization of the Declaration’s ideals, particularly with respect to expertise and partisanship. The dilution of its cautionary language will have the opposite effect.