Monday, November 24, 2008

Fish on Academic Freedom, Again

Stanley Fish's most recent column on academic freedom is worth a read, even if one might not agree with him. The hook is a new book by Finkin & Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale, 2009). The authors first distinguish between academic freedom and the sort of freedom secured by the First Amendment. As Fish summarizes,
“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.”
That seems clearly true to me, and explains alot of confusion about academic freedom. (It seems to me that the AAUP is unable to make this distinction.)

However, Fish (and the authors?) seem to then assume that "higher education" is a rather monolithic phenomeon. Or, to put it otherwise: the authors rightly ground academic freedom "in a substantive account of the purposes of higher education." They then define the mission or purpose of "the" university as the generation of new knowledge and the modeling of "independent thought." As Fish summarizes,
If the mission of the enterprise is, as Finkin and Post say, “to promote new knowledge and model independent thought,” the “special conditions” necessary to the realization of that mission must include protection from the forces and influences that would subvert newness and independence by either anointing or demonizing avenues of inquiry in advance.
Threats to academic freedom, on this account, include any "forces" that would mitigate this mission and subject it to the strictures of "public opinion." But this does not secure the freedom for professors to say just anything (e.g., to hijack a class on organic chemistry with rants about the war in Iraq or Prop 8 in California).

But on this point I find two interesting lacunas in the discussion: First, Finkin and Post's definition of the university's "mission" seems to exhibit a couple of tensions. On the one hand, the mission seems largely defined by research, whereas Fish's examples tend to focus on the classroom. Finkin and Post's definition of "the enterprise" focuses on the generation of new knowledge and seems to have little room, or at least little account, of the centrality of an education. Second, when this "enterprise" does include education, it's reduced to the liberal mantra of modeling "independent thought," in which case it seems that we're right back in the terrain of First-Amendment-like ideals of autonomy and freedom (often couched in the ruse that we are teaching students how to think not what to think; alot of partisan ranting gets smuggled into the classroom under the guise of "critical thinking"). Thus Fish praises the book because it "declares that while faculty must 'respect students as persons,' they are under no obligation to respect the 'ideas held by students.'" That might sound like its tweaking the student-centered, liberal ruse, but at the end of the day what it still can't entertain is this radical notion: that education might only be an education insofar as it constitutes a formation. (Indeed, one of the things the other Stanley [Hauerwas] emphasizes throughout The State of the University is that an education can't not be formation; the question is, formation to what end?]

Second, can Fish--and Finkin and Post--imagine a multiplicity of kinds of institutions of higher education? They seem to assume there is this thing called "the university"--which has multiple outposts or branches across the country--and all of those microcosmic instantiations of "the university" participate in this definition of "the enterprise." But might there be institutions of higher education that, in fact, embrace the project of education as formation, as inculcation into a tradition and its imagination, precisely as the ground for 'critical thinking?' (Every "critique" presumes some criteria.) Might there be universities which, suspicious of the empty ruse of "independent thought," are honest and up front about their enterprise as educating a people toward a substantive telos, a particular vision of the good life? Couldn't we imagine universities that acknowledge the traditioned nature of all our inquiry, and which seek to generate new knowledge, but do so in accordance with the rigors and "thickness" of an acknowledged tradition--a tradition which is not seen as restrictive and limiting, but rather which opens up the world for us? And wouldn't that be exactly the mission and "enterprise" of Christian and Catholic universities? Otherwise, why should they exist?

Finkin and Post suggest that our understandings of "academic freedom" must be grounded in a "substantive account of the purposes of higher education." I agree; I think we just need to acknowledge that there is not one set of purposes that define higher education as such. What counts as higher education, and what defines the task of higher education, is itself contested and multiple. Different institutions will have different understandings of that mission and enterprise. Academic freedom at the Christian university will be grounded in the articulation of the purpose of the Christian university. Within that mission and task, we will still prize "academic freedom," but it will be a bounded freedom (in good Augustinian fashion). The "boundaries," however, should not be subject to the whims of "public opinion," even public opinion within the church. For instance, it should not be subject to the hobby horses of trustees or presidents or "concerned parents." Academic freedom should flourish within the bounds of "Catholic" Christianity--defined by the thickness and time-tested-ness of the creedal and confessional tradition, not the current whims of radio preachers or talk-radio pundits.

Such an account cuts both ways; that is, such a model is an equal opportunity offender, because it resists the whims of both the left and the right. For instance, I find trustees and "concerned parents" often get hooked on hobby-horse issues that reflect current neo-conservative fixations (e.g., homosexuality, free markets, or [still!] creation/evolution). On the other hand, I find my more predictably "liberal" colleagues--even at a Christian university--tend to be easily co-opted into the agendas of (what passes for) the left in this country, and basically end up assuming, and even fighting for, a classically liberal notion of "autonomy" (which is why these professors, even though they're at a Christian or Catholic university, are largely allergic to the notion the notion of education as formation).

But now imagine that we're thinking about a Christian university community whose 'boundaries' (and hence horizons of possibility) are defined not by some 20th-century "Statement of Faith" abopted from a radio evangelistic ministry, but rather the Scriptures and historic creeds and confessions of the church (Apostles' Creed, Nicea, Chalcedon). In fact, imagine such a Christian university bound itself to confessions that included historical Reformational documents as well (say, something like the Belgic Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort). Then this university would situate itself in the thickness of a tradition that ranges from the first to sixteenth century. The "tradition" that informs its mission and task is catholic and thickly specified, and provides an untold wealth of resources for thinking about and grappling with the world--a generous platform to launch rigorous programs for generating new knowledge from within these horizons of possibility--even to generate knowledge and discover things about the world to which the so-called "secular" university would remain blind (which is precisely why I think this tradition is enabling, not 'limiting' or constrictive).

Well, what would this mean for either the conservative trustees or the 'liberal' professors? It turns out that "the tradition" undercuts both. On the one hand, the conservative trustees and "concerned parents" will be hard-pressed to find their hobby-horses making a run in the tradition. Further, it should be noted that many of the conservative trustees and "concerned parents," who often seem quite commited to the laissez-faire ideals of the "free" market will find that this tradition also constitutes a radical critique of the notion of "freedom" operative in said market. On the other hand, the 'liberal' professors who just assume autonomy as an ideal will find that the tradition's understanding of freedom constitutes a radical critique of the quasi-Enlightenment models they've assumed.

What we will find in this tradition, however, is a thick sense of who we are called to be as human beings re-created in the image of God, which provides a rich foundation for imagining the shape of an education that constitutes the formation of a people who desire the kingdom.