Review of Joan Wallach Scott, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom

April 2019

Joan Wallach Scott, Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom. New York: Columbia University Press, 2019.

Joan Wallach Scott is a well-known American historian, now based at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, the quondam home of intellectual giants such as Albert Einstein and John von Neumann. She is also a long-time member and chair of the American Association of University Professors Committee A, which deals with academic freedom. I naively thought that a book by an author with such illustrious credentials would teach me a lot about contemporary issues of academic freedom. I was wrong.

For one thing, the book is a collection of short essays published over more than 20 years. Important issues, such as the difference between academic freedom and constitutionally protected freedom of speech, or the relationship between academic freedom and civility, are mentioned but never systematically developed. But there is a more important problem related to the author’s general outlook, which cannot be understood without some ad feminam observations.

Joan Wallach was a red-diaper baby. Her father Sam Wallach (brother of the renowned actor Eli Wallach) was president of the Communist-led New York City Teachers Union. The Teachers Union was expelled by the American Federation of Teachers at the time when American organized labour was ridding itself of Communist influences, and Sam Wallach lost his job as a high-school teacher. Like many Marxists of her generation, Joan Wallach Scott went into university life and transferred her allegiance to identity politics, reinterpreting class struggle in terms of gender and ethnic conflict.

Given that backstory, it is not surprising that she is blind in one eye. She sees threats to academic freedom coming only from the political Right. A century ago, at the height of the first American Progressive movement, pressures from university trustees, donors, and state legislators led socialist-leaning academics to organize in defence of academic freedom. In Scott’s view of the world, nothing much has changed in a hundred years. The enemies of academic freedom are still state legislators, in league with big corporations and, of course, the Trump administration.

But the world has in fact changed. The academic Left enjoys a huge numerical preponderance in today’s universities, and the main threats to academic freedom come from Leftist professors, student mobs, and bumptious diversity administrators. In Canada, it was not provincial politicians and big corporations who fired Rick Mehta and tried to silence Jordan Peterson and Lindsay Shepherd. But Scott hardly notices parallel events in her own country. Her comments on the disgraceful mobbing of Charles Murray at Middlebury College are typical: he never should have been invited in the first place, and the only harm done by the mobbing was to cede some temporary moral high ground to the Right. You would think that, as a soi-disant feminist, she might have mentioned that the mob violence sent to the hospital the liberal female professor who had invited Murray to speak, but again you would be wrong.

Scott’s distinctions, even when valid, are always drawn in a way convenient to her political stance. For example, it is true that academic freedom and freedom of speech are not identical. Academic freedom is not a fundamental constitutional right but a privilege enjoyed by university academics because it is essential to the enterprise of science and scholarship. But if you draw the distinction too narrowly, academic freedom becomes a privilege of a credentialed guild, who can use it to ignore or even abuse the free speech of others. That is what is happening today, now that academic Leftists control most disciplines. They are driving non-conformists like Rick Mehta out of their jobs, propagandizing in the classroom, and deplatforming visiting speakers who might offer contrary views.

Campus freedom of speech is so threatened that governments like those of Rob Ford and Donald Trump are stepping in—perhaps not an ideal solution, but understandable in light of the Left’s hegemony in academia. Scott’s book provides some insight about how universities got into their present degraded situation but offers no useful ideas about how to get out of it. Ironically, she and others like her have discovered a perverse philosopher’s stone that turns gold into lead, transmuting academic freedom from a defence of dissenting opinion into protection of a credentialed elite imposing their opinions on others.