Where the scholars roam free

Thomas Docherty on the fundamental tension between professional duties and civil engagement

October 2, 2014

Who cares about academic freedom? What marks the academic out for such special consideration? On what basis can we assert rights and freedoms that are unavailable to other professions or citizens? Is the academic’s work properly oriented towards more general freedoms? In posing these and other fundamental questions, the eminent American scholar Stanley Fish claims to be opening an entire new discipline, “academic freedom studies”; but, like most disciplines, this one is named long after some major works – themselves occasioned by historic events – have laid out the terrain. Fish locates a fundamental tension between our professional duties (the regulatory powers and protocols of the “guild”) and broad legal responsibilities (the public courts as they are concerned with civil liberty). There may be no more pressing issue for the university institution – or for our societies in general – at the present time; and the writing of this book is therefore an important event.

Fish identifies five versions of academic freedom across a broad spectrum. At one end, the priority is on the “academic”. Here, one’s freedom is carefully circumscribed as the freedom to pursue our professional goals in the institutionally approved ways (yielding the modest claim that “it’s just a job”). At the other extreme, the stress is on “freedom”. Here we find academics who prefer to subjugate their professional commitments to political goals (or a self-important “academic freedom as revolution”). In between are three intermediate versions: “for the common good”; “academic exceptionalism”; “academic freedom as critique”.

The five versions are laid out succinctly. Fish unashamedly registers himself in the “it’s just a job” school, already characterised in his 1995 book as “professional correctness”. This has a modesty that is at once amiable and indefensible. At the other extreme is Denis Rancourt, for whom “academic squatting” (which cost him his job at the University of Ottawa) involves proposing a class in physics but then teaching political activism instead. The ostensibly self-important bombast of this approach is less amiable and equally indefensible. The core of the argument must surely rest on the proper regulation between the claims of the guild and those of the good life and civil engagement; and at the core of that tension is law, specifically employment law.

Fish has predecessors. Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, argued for professionalism. In his hypothetical ideal State, “one man does one job and does not play…a multiplicity of roles”. Fish’s equivalent is the academic exercising her freedom solely within tightly circumscribed academic protocol. First, however, “Quis custodiet?” Who guards the protocols governing the legitimisation of academic protocol? Fish can only answer: “those engaged in the discipline of Academic Freedom Studies” – ie, Fish. Second, the more precisely discriminating the job description, the more the entire academic and social world becomes atomised. Everything becomes divorced from everything else. When “Shakespeare studies” cannot call on “Ireland studies”, say, the fields of both become anorexic through over-particularisation; and the intellectual world goes hollow. Third, Socrates was addressing the polity; and each particular worker has a bearing on the relations among the other workers. This is, in a word, politics, and how we legitimise cultural or institutional practices.

The position that Fish advocates is, perhaps appropriately given his earlier work, oddly “self-consuming”. In 1995’s Professional Correctness: Literary Studies and Political Change he claimed an absolute continuity between his early work and the positions in that book. In extending that continuity here, Fish ends up resembling a latter-day Aquinas or his earlier antagonists in American New Criticism: obsessed with ascertaining the quidditas of his subject, and disappearing into material irrelevance. Academic freedom is more important than this. In arguing with this book, we can show how and why. Read it; and dissent.

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