Monday, June 13, 2011

USA academic freedom scholarship as a measure of corporate fascism

By Denis G. Rancourt

A reliable gauge of the present state of academic freedom in the USA is to ascertain what its scholars who purport to be defending academic freedom are actually saying.

In this regard, the present post is a critical review of the 1996 book "The Future of Academic Freedom" edited by Louis Menard [1]. The book contains chapters by Ronald Dworkin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thomas L. Haskell, Evelyn Fox Keller, Louis Menard, Richard Rorty, Edward W. Said, Joan W. Scott, and Cass R. Sunstein.

In his introductory chapter Menard gives a broad interpretation of academic freedom as the well known professional independence and collegial governance ideals while excluding adult students:

"It is the key legitimizing concept of the entire enterprise. Virtually every practice of academic life that we take for granted -- from the practice of allowing departments to hire and fire their own members to the practice of not allowing the football coach to influence the quarterback's grade in math class -- derives from it. Any internal account of what goes on in the academic world must at the same time be a convincing rational for maintaining the space defined by academic freedom. The alternative is a political free-for-all, in which decisions about curricula, funding, employment, classroom practice, and scholarly merit are arrived at through a process of negotiation among competing interests. The power in such negotiations will not be wielded by the professors."

Despite this lofty definition, Menard and the other authors (excluding Said) go on to never again mention professional independence or collegial governance as central concerns but instead myopically confine themselves to the questions of freedom of expression in and outside the classroom and of debated curricular choices given the advent of postmodernism...

Amazingly, none of these expert authors ever touch on the historical fact that the "process of negotiation among competing interests" was already had and lost in the early twentieth century when academic freedom was being defined and refined as an instrument of academic workforce (self-) confinement. Their blind-spot is a testament to the strength of academic freedom as a device for ideological control. It is as though none of these authors have read Ellen W. Schrecker's seminal 1986 book "No Ivory Tower" [2]. The "Future" of Menard's title is blind to the past.

Schrecker has outlined how academics were easily trained to police themselves using the carrot-and-stick freedom proxy to become modern "academic freedom". She has explained how the crux of the battle was between inquiry and reform; between neutralized and ineffective inquiry and active participation in political reform; between the segregated realm of ideas and the positive freedom of political activism. [2]

The result was the "academic freedom" that neutralizes the Noam Chomskies [3] and allows the tenured Ward Churchills to be summarily fired using bogus pretexts. Those clinging to the myth of an actual academic freedom of course steer us to a "careful examination of the complex alleged reasons that Churhill was fired".

Said is the only author in the collection to somewhat brush against the unstated underlying political basis of academic freedom by challenging his colleagues to leave the numbing security of their regulated communities of experts and instead "enter a ceaseless quest for knowledge and freedom". Said invites his colleagues to become free-agent travelers who "cross[] over, traverse[] territory, and abandon[] fixed positions, all the time" and to "suspend the claim of customary routine" and not "guard only one place and defend its frontiers". [4]

Gates ably deconstructs critical race theory but without directly affirming the obvious; that "'Words that wound' are an artifice of new-wave law theorists looking to lead a legal analysis sect premised on slave-hood and the law as protective master and paternalistic guardian of society's values" [5]; and without ever addressing the question of academic freedom beyond the usual infantile preoccupations with political correctness constraints on speech. [6]

The other authors in the collection either make useless chatter or actually weave crap justifications for greater and better limits to academic freedom that in Canada, given the texts of collective agreements (union contracts with the university corporate employers) and institutional statements of purpose, would be laughable. [7]

Such is the state of academic freedom in the USA.

A more recent such volume, edited by Beshara Doumani, 2006, is a carbon copy of Menard's 1996 collection in terms of what is strictly taboo and the breadth of the discourse [8]. As Doumani puts it, it's about vigorously defending academic freedom from "the stifling and corrupting forces unleashed in times of war and privatization" in order to preserve the "landscape of intellectual production" [9]. He might as well say "we are and make service intellectuals and we want to negotiate our terms of reference, just so we are all clear in this time of war..."

Both volumes have a stench of the "scholarship of academic freedom" rather than expressing vitality in expanding student and professional intellectual and political independence. These volumes show a weak, spineless and hollow self-management-class professorate asleep in the comfort of its hierarchical privilege. The story of defending academic freedom, on the other hand, is being written by the few who actually practice it.


[1] "The Future of Academic Freedom" edited by Louis Menard, The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

[2] "No Ivory Tower" by Ellen W. Schrecker, Oxford University Press, 1986. See also "Disciplined Minds" by Jeff Schmidt, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

[3] "Against Chomsky" by Denis G. Rancourt, ActivistTeacher blog, 2008.

[4] "Identity, Authority, and Freedom: The Potentate and the Traveler" by Edward W. Said, 1996; Chapter-9 in [1].

[5] "Why is "freedom" so difficult to understand?" by Denis G. Rancourt, ActivistTeacher blog, 2011.

[6] "Critical Race Theory and Freedom of Speech" by Henry Louis Gates Jr., 1996; Chapter-5 in [1].

[7] "On the Legal Status of Academic Freedom in Canada" by Denis G. Rancourt,, 2011. (alternative link)

[8] "Academic Freedom after September 11" edited by Beshara Doumani, Zone Books, NY, 2006.

[9] "Between Coercion and Privatization: Academic Freedom in the Twenty-First Century" by Beshara Doumani, 2006; First chapter in [8].

Denis G. Rancourt is a former tenured and full professor of physics at the University of Ottawa in Canada. He practiced several areas of science (including physics and environmental science) which were funded by a national agency and ran an internationally recognized laboratory. He has published over 100 articles in leading scientific journals and several social commentary essays. He developed popular activism courses and was an outspoken critic of the university administration and a defender of student and Palestinian rights. He was fired for his dissidence in 2009. His dismissal case is in court hearings that will extend into 2012.


gyg3s said...

Shouldn't 'service intellectual' be 'servile intellectual'?

Smoking Man said...

Hey Denis

This is what Bill Gross of PIMCO thinks of higher education.

Pimco is the worlds biggest in bonds