Tuesday, January 15, 2008


This story in IHE made me laugh out loud. Apparently, a community college in New Jersey briefly floated a policy to encourage 'civility' that was anything but. The provisions were:

1. Honesty, integrity, and respect for all will guide my personal conduct.
2. I will embrace and celebrate differing perspectives intellectually.
3. I will build an inclusive community enriched by diversity.
4. I am willing to respect and assist those individuals who are less fortunate.
5. I promise my commitment to civic engagement and to serve the needs of the community to the best of my ability.

Yes, they overshot. I'd say, comically so. (Number 2 is my favorite. “I celebrate your staggering wrongness! I embrace your breathtaking, fundamental category error!”) But there is some value to the idea of civility that apparently animated the original idea. If we understand civility as something like “the rules for participating in the organization,” then it seems reasonable to me to go beyond “I know it when I see it.” The mistake wasn't in trying to write it down; it was in absurdly overreaching.

My proposed code of civil conduct for higher ed, or speech code, if you prefer:

I will separate the speaker from the speech.

That's it.

I don't think it unduly impinges on academic freedom. Attack someone's speech (or writing) to your heart's content. If you think they're wrong, explain why, and be prepared to have to explain back. Just don't move from “you're wrong” to “you're bad.” The former is the risk of any new idea; the latter simply ends discussion. I would apply this standard to academic arguments, as well as to arguments among academics.

(For example, in arguing against, say, single-payer health care, a statement like “that would stifle innovation” or “that would politicize a private decision” would be worth addressing. A statement like “you liberals and your fantasies of a nanny state,” on the other hand, would not. Racial slurs would be out of bounds by definition, since they attack the person.)

I'd like to think that higher ed, of all places, should be where people can try on different ideas for size. It's where they can experiment, play ideas off against each other, test theories, and, yes, be wrong. My image of the physical sciences is that they come pretty close to this. (It's not perfect or friction-free, but the ideal is recognizable.) Data trump rank, which is as it should be. Yes, some people build credibility over time by being right a lot, but there's always the possibility of proving them wrong.

“Proof” is a tougher call in the social sciences and humanities, but it's still possible to adduce better or worse evidence for a given argument. (If it isn't, I'd like to know just what the hell we're doing.)

Am I rejecting the feminist ideal that the personal is political? I don't think so. I'd draw a distinction between the 'personal' in the sense of the 'traditionally private' and the 'personal' in the sense of 'the idiosyncratic.' Anybody who reads my blog for any length of time knows that I routinely include elements of family life, either for comic relief or to make a point about the tensions in trying to make 'work' plus 'home' equal 'a decent life,' and the costs to everyone of those tensions. By making, say, administrative jobs largely incompatible with parenting young children, we lose a significant pool of potential talent. There's a cost to that, and it's a properly public issue. 'Personal' stuff that can be generalized strikes me as reasonable fodder for public discussion.

What strikes me as unproductive is the personal stuff that shuts down discussion. In the 90's, there was a fad of “it's a (blank) thing, you wouldn't understand,” that struck me as incredibly offensive. If taken literally, which it seemingly sometimes was, it implied that discussion was useless. If that's true, we're in very deep trouble.

By my standard, the idea of, say, affirmative action for political conservatives on college faculties would be absolutely out of the question. If the basis of your employment is a fixed idea, then you've already defeated the purpose of academic inquiry. Real academic inquiry always carries the risk of changing your mind. If changing your mind would cost you your job, then we've defeated the purpose.

(This is also why I'm deeply skeptical of the possibility of real academic freedom at a religiously-affiliated college. If the answers are given in advance, why bother asking the questions?)

My proposal is certainly vulnerable to a charge of political naivete. If the other side (however defined) doesn't fight 'fair,' why should we? Isn't that unilateral disarmament?

There's some truth to this. The ideal is only an ideal, and in practice, the categories can sometimes be hard to separate. In the context of higher ed, I'd have to say that the ideal of open inquiry is worth considerable sacrifice. A college shouldn't be run like a political campaign or a cult. In a political campaign, you shouldn't always separate the speaker from the speech, since the speaker is running for office. But for higher ed, it strikes me as a pretty good rule of thumb.

Wise and worldly readers – your thoughts?