Academics Cling to Their Academic Freedom and Tenure

Stanley Fish is enamored (but does not agree) with Naomi Schaefer Riley’s argument in The Faculty Lounges: and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.  Here is part of his summation:

The standard rationale for academic freedom is that the business of the academy is to advance knowledge by conducting inquiries the outcomes of which are not known in advance. Since the obligation is to follow the evidence wherever it leads rather than to a “pre-stipulated goal” (a phrase Riley takes from my writings), researchers must be free to go down paths as they suggest themselves and not in obedience to a political program or an ideology. That is why (and again she is quoting me) “the degree of latitude and flexibility” that attends academic freedom is “not granted to the practitioners of other professions.”

But, Riley observes, “a significant portion of [the] additional degrees that colleges have added in the past few decades have been in vocational areas,” and those areas “simply do not engage students in a search for ultimate truths,” but instead have pre-stipulated goals. “Do we need,” she asks, “to guarantee the academic freedom of professors engaged in teaching and studying ‘Transportation and Materials Moving,’ a field in which more than five thousand degrees were awarded in 2006?”

Riley makes the same point about “vocational courses” that have been around for a while. Freshman composition, for example, “does not demand that faculty ask existential questions.” Ditto for courses in “Security and Protective Services,” and “Business Statistics.” These are, she says, “fields of study with fairly definitive answers” and it would be hard to argue that they are “essential to civilization.” Those who teach these and similarly vocational subjects “don’t really need the freedom to ask controversial questions in discussing them.”

Another category of courses that Riley believes does not merit academic freedom includes “area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies.” Here the issue is not an absence of intellectual content, but an intellectual content that goes only in one (leftward) direction. Often, she complains, “the entire premise of the discipline … rests on a political agenda.” Courses “often appear to be a series of axes faculty would like to grind.” Since “the endpoint of their academic study is predetermined,” the departments that offer them “are advertising their lack of a need for academic freedom.”

Now, one might think that by looking askance at vocational and political instruction, Riley is calling for a return to traditional liberal arts education with its emphasis on open-ended inquiry and intellectual risk-taking. But in fact she is preparing the way for an argument against tenure.

And that is only the beginning.  Riley also has things to say about tenure that will infuriate many academics.  (Especially if the commentators on Fish’s New York Times article are any indication).  Read the rest of Fish’s piece here. 

Now I know that many of my academic readers will blast Riley for her thoughts on academic freedom and tenure.  Most academics cling to their tenure and academic freedom like working class people supposedly cling to guns and religion. (HT: Barack Obama).  When it comes to certain aspects of academic life, many professors tend to be rather predictable, unreflective, and close-minded.

Perhaps academics should make a fuss when their tenure and academic freedom is threatened. But sometimes they cling so hard to these marks of academic orthodoxy that they fail to take seriously or appreciate any new idea that even remotely challenges their commitment to such orthodoxy.  (I find that academics are one of the most conservative bunches in America).  One thing I like about Fish is his willingness to acknowledge a good argument when he sees it.

Good Thoughts on the University of Illinois’ Catholic Problem

Kenneth Howell is the Catholic theologian who was fired (and the rehired) by the University of Illinois for teaching (and apparently advocating for) Catholic theology in a course entitled “Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought.” It turns out that Howell had written an e-mail to his class arguing that natural law could be used to oppose same-sex marriage.

I have found the most thoughtful voice on this whole affair to be Janine Giordano Drake, a Ph.D candidate in History at Illinois who is writing a dissertation on the working class religious left in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America.

In two excellent essays–one at Religion Dispatches and the other at Religion in American History (aptly titled “The Costs of Secularism“)–Drake argues for the validity of theology courses in public universities.

In her Religion Dispatches essay, she concludes:

Our public university’s mission is now, and arguably always was, quite modern. Today we aim to provide students with “the freedom to consider conflicting views and to make their own evaluation of data, evidence, and doctrines.” A liberal arts education aims to put students in the driver’s seat among various ideas, and ask them to evaluate these ideas with the tools of scholarly interpretation developed in the most current scholarship. But which categories of the most current scholarship? Does the university’s mission to achieve pluralism foreclose the possibility of highly biased instruction?

The university’s statement asserts that, “Faculty members have a responsibility to maintain an atmosphere conducive to intellectual inquiry and rational discussion.” Buried in this statement is the vicious knot challenging the next generation of scholars and teachers of religion. We are tasked to research, teach and write about believers in an irrational world, but arm ourselves only with the modern tools of rationality.

We need more writers like Drake. Intelligent voices and public intellectuals who expose the inconsistencies between the postmodern language of academics and the modernist “mission” that still seems to define life in the public research university.