More than a few times in these columns I have tried to deflate the balloon of academic freedom by arguing that it was not an absolute right or a hallowed principle, but a practical and limited response to the particular nature of intellectual work.
Now, in a new book -"For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom,"to be published in 2009 - two distinguished scholars of constitutional law, Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post, study the history and present shape of the concept and come to conclusions that support and deepen what I have been saying in these columns and elsewhere.
The authors' most important conclusion is presented early on in their introduction: "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."
In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.
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. Those forces and influences would include trustees, parents, donors, legislatures and the general run of "public opinion," and the device that provides the necessary protection is called academic freedom. (It would be better if it had a name less resonant with large significances, but I can't think of one.)
It does not, however, protect faculty members from the censure or discipline that might follow upon the judgment of their peers that professional standards have either been ignored or violated. There is, Finkin and Post insist, "a fundamental distinction between holding faculty accountable to professional norms and holding them accountable to public opinion. The former exemplifies academic freedom: the latter undermines it."
Holding faculty accountable to public opinion undermines academic freedom because it restricts teaching and research to what is already known or generally accepted.
Holding faculty accountable to professional norms exemplifies academic freedom because it highlights the narrow scope of that freedom, which does not include the right of faculty "to research and publish in any manner they personally see fit."
Indeed, to emphasize the "personal" is to mistake the nature of academic freedom, which belongs, Finkin and Post declare, to the enterprise, not to the individual. If academic freedom were "reconceptualized as an individual right," it would make no sense - why should workers in this enterprise have enlarged rights denied to others? - and support for it "would vanish" because that support, insofar as it exists, is for the project and its promise (the production of new knowledge) and not for those who labor within it. Academics do not have a general liberty, only "the liberty to practice the scholarly profession" and that liberty is hedged about by professional norms and responsibilities.
I find this all very congenial. Were Finkin and Post's analysis internalized by all faculty members, the academic world would be a better place, if only because there would be fewer instances of irresponsible or overreaching teachers invoking academic freedom as a cover for their excesses.
I do, however, have a quarrel with the authors when they turn to the question of what teachers are free or not free to do in the classroom.
Finkin and Post are correct when they reject the neo-conservative criticism of professors who bring into a class materials from disciplines other than the ones they were trained in. The standard, they say, should be "whether material from a seemingly foreign field of study illuminates the subject matter under scrutiny."
Just so. If I'm teaching poetry and feel that economic or mathematical models might provide a helpful perspective on a poem or body of poems, there is no good pedagogical reason for limiting me to models that belong properly to literary criticism. (I could of course be criticized for not understanding the models I imported, but that would be another issue; a challenge to my competence, not to my morality.)
But of course what the neo-conservative critics of the academy are worried about is not professors who stray from their narrowly defined areas of expertise; they are worried about professors who do so in order to sneak in their partisan preferences under the cover of providing students with supplementary materials. That, I think, is a genuine concern, and one Finkin and Post do not take seriously enough.
Responding to an expressed concern that liberal faculty too often go on about the Iraq War in a course on an entirely unrelated subject, Finkin and Post maintain that there is nothing wrong, for example, with an instructor in English history "who seeks to interest students by suggesting parallels between King George III's conduct of the Revolutionary War and Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq."
But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch's conduct of his war would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush's conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?
Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting. Finkin and Post are right to say that "educational relevance is to be determined . . . by the heuristic purposes and consequences of a pedagogical intervention"; but this intervention has almost no chance of remaining pedagogical; its consequences are predictable, and its purposes are suspect
Still, this is the only part of the book's argument I am unable to buy. The rest of it is right on target. And you just have to love a book - O.K., I just have to love a book - that declares that while faculty must "respect students as persons," they are under no obligation to respect the "ideas held by students." Way to go!