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Content-Free Academic Freedom

A times I feel that I should home-school my child all the way through college. Another university, the University of Wisconsin, has hired a crackpot to teach a course, and the university's president is too dense to understand his mistake. Fortunately, I have a good sixteen years before I need to worry about which universities are good and which are bad. I can therefore treat the controversy as a form of entertainment; what I find particularly interesting in this controversy is one of the definitions of academic freedom that came out of the controversy.

The controversy is that Kevin Barrett, a lecturer hired to teach an undergraduate course on Islam, plans to present the attacks of September 11, 2000 against the United States by Islamic terrorists as a conspiracy by the U.S. government. The university president has decided that these ideas of professor Barrett enriches the intellectual environment at the university. The blog of law professor Ann Althouse is a good source of information and comments about this tempest. Some readers comments on that site mirrored my own thinking. Why should I send my child to a university that teaches conspiracy theory, and if a paranoid conspiracy theorist “enriches” a university community, why doesn't a neo-Nazi or an astrologer also enrich the community?

In reaction to the comments of both professor Althouse and of her readers, Professor Stanley Fish, a law professor at a university in Florida and previously the chairman of the Duke University English Department, wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times that presents his own theory of academic freedom. He concludes that Barrett is wrong to teach his conspiracy theory, but not because the conspiracy theory is wrong, but because Barrett is advocating the truth of his position. Underlying Professor Fish's reasoning is his understanding of academic freedom:

Academic freedom means that if I think that there may be an intellectual payoff to be had by turning an academic lens on material others consider trivial—golf tees, gourmet coffee, lingerie ads, convenience stores, street names, whatever—I should get a chance to try. If I manage to demonstrate to my peers and students that studying this material yields insights into matters of general intellectual interest, there is a new topic under the academic sun and a new subject for classroom discussion.

In short, whether something is an appropriate object of academic study is a matter not of its content—a crackpot theory may have had a history of influence that well rewards scholarly scrutiny—but of its availability to serious analysis. This point was missed by the author of a comment posted to the blog of a University of Wisconsin law professor, Ann Althouse: “When is the University of Wisconsin hiring a professor of astrology?” The question is obviously sarcastic; its intention is to equate the 9/11-inside-job theory with believing in the predictive power of astrology, and to imply that since the university wouldn't think of hiring someone to teach the one, it should have known better than to hire someone to teach the other.

But the truth is that it would not be at all outlandish for a university to hire someone to teach astrology—not to profess astrology and recommend it as the basis of decision-making (shades of Nancy Reagan), but to teach the history of its very long career. There is, after all, a good argument for saying that Shakespeare, Chaucer and Dante, among others, cannot be fully understood unless one understands astrology.

The distinction I am making—between studying astrology and proselytizing for it—is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn. Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.

This definition of academic freedom differs radically from my own. In fact, this view of academic freedom would impede the advancement of science. The very thing that Professor Fish says academic freedom does not allow—proselytizing a particular point of view—occurs daily in science classrooms; a young scientist needs a grounding in the fundamentals of science before he can even understand the questions to be resolved through research. The underlying problem with Professor Fish's theory of academic freedom is the absence of context in his discussion. The context determines whether an idea is appropriate for study in a classroom. Without bringing context into his discussion, Professor Fish can assert that content is irrelevant to the concept of academic freedom, because he can always come up with a situation where the study of an idea is reasonable.

It is certainly appropriate to teach astrology when teaching the history of astronomy, especially if it is the history of Babylonian astronomy. Astrology is the reason that the Babylonians studied the stars, so to understand this early development of astronomy, one needs to understand the place of astrology at that time. But it is not appropriate to teach astrology when teaching the science of astronomy, because astrology was left behind long ago when astronomers developed a rigorous discipline of comparing observation to theory. The point is that astronomy, physics, and the other sciences are disciplines that over time generate a body of established knowledge grounded in observation and experiment. Beyond doubt, special relativity correctly describes the motion of all objects we can observe within our universe. Without doubt, Newtonian mechanics correctly describes the motions of all objects moving a much less than the speed of light. Without doubt, quantum mechanics correctly describes the motions of electrons within atoms. Reviving within the classroom the old debates from the past over defunct alternative theories or over pseudoscience is a waste of time and money, and teaching these ideas along side established theories in a nonjudgmental manner, as if all ideas are of equal standing, teaches the student a falsehood. Professor Fish therefore has it wrong: the content of a class does matter, because the context makes the teaching of many ideas inappropriate.

By taking any idea out of its context and asserting that it is a legitimate topic of study in any class, Professor Fish leads us to the idea that all knowledge is debatable, placing us deep into the camp of the deconstructionist. If knowledge is a social construct, then why not toss out any idea that comes to mind and let the student construct whatever base of knowledge suits him. Perhaps this is an idea lawyers are prone to accept; the job of a defense lawyer, after all, is to present alternative theories that cast doubt on the prosecution's theory.

But much of physics and astronomy are established beyond doubt, and the basic knowledge of these fields is taught to undergraduates as doctrine. Science contains truth, and professors of science teach that truth. To use Professor Fish's terminology, professors of science proselytize their students in a set of beliefs. Before a student can grasp the myriad controversies within the research community, he must first understand the science that is settled beyond question. Even graduate students spend most of their class time studying doctrine rather than the more esoteric unresolved problems of science. The types of debates a graduate student is exposed to in the classroom is limited to the handful of most prominent problems, and usually only the most prominent ideas within the community are presented. Only researchers spend the majority of their time thinking about and discussing the multitude of theories that may resolve a scientific problem. How a scientist is trained is therefore completely at odds with the image of students in the classroom debating the great unresolved issues of the day. Proselytism is therefore an unworkable demarcation between appropriate and inappropriate classroom subjects.

Jim Brainerd

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