Sunday, March 16, 2014


Positive Academic Freedom: A Response to Tim Burke

Tim Burke just posted a long, thoughtful, beautifully written post on academic freedom, academic intramural conflict, and the dangers of thinking that “framing” solves everything.  Maybe it’s because I went through grad school in the 90’s, but much of it spoke to me, and I really can’t recommend it enough.

There’s too much in it to do it justice in a single post, but that’s sort of the point.  Burke calls for, well, reframing academic freedom as a positive freedom, rather than simply as the absence of censorship.  Among other things, that involves pushing actual, incumbent academics to become much more humble about their own claims.  

For example, Burke references the 90’s debates about “strategic essentialism” as a sort of well-intended bad faith move that wound up not helping.  For folks who managed to dodge the theory wars of the 90’s, “essentialism” was the term for attributing false solidity or naturalness to acquired or ascribed traits.  Essentialism was generally considered retrograde, since it fed into powerful oppressions along the lines of race and gender, for example.  Deconstructing those categories was assumed to be liberatory, since recasting them as voluntary (or “constructed”) could open up the possibility for political contestation and reconstruction along consciously-chosen lines.

But in the world of actual politics, it didn’t always work that way.  That’s easy to see when applied to the movement for gay rights.  If homosexuality is a choice, then it follows that it can be judged like any other choice.  But if it’s essential -- as Lady Gaga put it, if you’re “born this way” -- then punishing people for it is just mean.  That kind of essentialism may be theoretically retrograde, but on the ground, it works.  Actual politicians, as opposed to academic theorists, have a knack for finding the arguments that resonate emotionally at a given moment.  The political progress of, say, gay marriage has resulted more from arguments from common decency than from subverting heterosexist constructions of gender identity.  And that’s okay.

Political practice often comes from a much more frank and honest discussion of self-interest and what Burke, interestingly, calls emotional intelligence.  The conceit behind “strategic essentialism” is that the strategist is above the fray, manipulating other people in the name of the larger good that the strategist favors.  In other words, it can’t explain the strategist.  As anyone who has dealt with academic politics knows, academics are no more immune to self-interest than anyone else.  Laypeople know that intuitively, and look askance -- rightly -- on people who try to manipulate them while denying that they’re doing it.  Whether you call it strategic essentialism or the noble lie, it’s based on the assumption that some people are In On The Truth, and others never will be.  Politics becomes a puppet battle, with disingenuous masterminds “deploying” various “discourses” to move the rubes.  The public doesn’t much care for that, and rightly so.

Burke suggests, plausibly enough, that much ostensibly liberatory work is actually quite controlling, albeit in a different direction.  Incessant critique presumes a standpoint of perfection.  Moving from all-encompassing critique to action within constraints involves accepting some pretty severe epistemological limits, among other things.  It means making peace with the reality of acting with incomplete information, and of confronting people who can see your self-interest, even if you can’t.  And it usually involves selecting from among imperfect options, in a context in which other people will respond to those choices in ways that reflect their own interests.

Where I part company from Burke, at least somewhat, is in his expansiveness.  He moves from an appropriate recognition that all perspectives are constrained to a sort of fatalism in distinguishing one from another.  “Let a thousand flowers bloom” doesn’t have a great history, and it doesn’t work terribly well when there’s only so much soil.  Put differently, I can agree that there is far more in heaven and earth than is covered in my philosophy department, but that doesn’t mean I have the budget to hire dozens more philosophers to expound on it.  Which means that I need to base allocation decisions on something.  I need a basis from which to say no.

My preferred way to balance that tension is to think in terms of pathways.  Given such a vast, and largely unpredictable, set of pathways that students can follow, which initial directions will give them the best start?  What will they most likely need?  I don’t know what the hot thing will be in ten or twenty years; if I did, I’d buy stock in it.  But I’m pretty confident that developing and/or navigating that world will be easier for people who can communicate well, handle ambiguity well, and reason both quantitatively and critically.  It’ll be easier for people who can make a decent living, defend their interests politically, and handle disagreement on the job.  Admittedly, that’s a lot less ambitious than, say, decentering phallogocentrism, but hey.  Ya gotta start somewhere.

It also offers at least the beginning of a way to handle the always-sticky issue of tolerating the intolerant.  Academic freedom is easy when everyone mostly agrees.  But should the creationist get tenure in the biology department?  I would say no, on the grounds that creationism plays by different, and incompatible, rules of evidence.  It’s one thing to interpret findings differently; it’s quite another to write off evidence as planted by Satan to deceive us.  That position simply rules out further discussion, and therefore prevents intellectual growth.  It defeats the purpose of the larger enterprise.  

Burke’s piece is far more thoughtful and nuanced than I’ve captured here.  If you have a chunk of time, check it out.  Every so often, it’s healthy to step back a bit and ask just why we do what we do in the first place.  Nicely done.

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