Sunday, December 13, 2009

Academic freedom: Finkin and Post's For the Common Good

I recently read Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post's For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom for a discussion sponsored by RU's Center for Teaching Awesomeness (h/t Lucky Jane). It was a great read, and one I recommend to anyone interested in the subject; it was a particularly nice counterpoint to Stanley Fish's Save the World on Your Own Time, which we read last winter.

At least for this non-specialist, Finkin and Post's book is a lucid and straightforward approach to the issues surrounding academic freedom. Chapters one and two provide historical background, with the first chapter describing how the concept of academic freedom emerged from conditions in first the medieval European university and then the nineteenth-century German research university. The second chapter details how those ideas got translated into the (significantly different) American context shortly after the turn of the twentieth-century, with the AAUP's 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.

The remaining chapters outline the four different areas of academic freedom, as they've been codified over the years by the cases brought before the AAUP: freedom of research, freedom in the classroom, freedom of intramural speech and freedom of extramural speech.

Some of my co-discussants found the book anxiety-producing, I think because of its accounts of faculty members who were fired for shockingly minimal cause--and it's true that, even if the AAUP decided in those professors' favor and censured their universities, they were still out of a job, and it's beyond the scope of the book to investigate what happened to them. For me, though, the book felt liberating for the clarity it shed on a subject about which I realized I was tremendously ill-informed; public discussions about academic freedom (and indeed even debates within the professoriate) tend to throw the term around without much precision and without reference to case law; Finkin and Post, who are both legal scholars, attempt to rectify this.

Their central argument is suggested by their book's title: academic freedom is not the personal or individual right of faculty members to research (or teach or speak) as they see fit, but rather the collective right of the professoriate to self-governance: to produce knowledge and to regulate the production of that knowledge in a way that serves the public (42). Academic freedom is thus not the same as the First Amendment right to freedom of expression; it is both more restrictive and (in some ways) more extensive. As they write,

[E]xplicit within First Amendment doctrine [is the idea] that there is an 'equality of status in the field of ideas.' It is clear that this premise is inconsistent with the advancement of knowledge, which requires precisely that ideas be treated unequally, that they be assessed and weighed, accepted and rejected. The kind of individual freedom that underlies the structure of First Amendment rights is for this reason ill-suited to the production of knowledge. (43)

But if academic freedom is thus more limited than simple freedom of expression, at the same time it's an astonishing privilege: most people are not permitted the workplace rights that professors are--to pursue the projects they wish to pursue; to criticize the institutions that employ them; to express political or other sentiments that make those they work with uncomfortable.

Academic freedom, if it is to do the hard work of protecting faculty from the waves of repression that periodically sweep through the American polity, must explain why scholars ought to enjoy freedoms that other members of the public do not possess. . . . Academic freedom [as formulated by the AAUP] is the price the public must pay in return for the social good of advancing knowledge. (44)

But the only way that academics can make the case that this is what they're doing--providing a social good--is if they are indeed governing themselves, and following the norms and conventions of their discipline. In other words, scholars do not have to explain or justify the merits of their work in the terms set by elected officials or boards of governors or taxpayers or parents footing tuition bills (all of whom might be outraged by perceived challenges to their private morality or their personal political views, and who are not, after all, experts in the subject they propose to censure), but they do have to abide by the standards of their own discipline.

There's more, much more, and the restrictions on academic freedom when it comes to behavior in the classroom or when speaking out on institutional or political issues that don't bear immediately on the subject of a professor's research are rather tighter than those surrounding research. But you should read the book for yourselves.


Annie Em said...

I've been meaning to blog about this book...Academic freedom is one of those most misunderstood terms: whenever I hear someone mention that students have "academic freedom" I cringe. Most academics, though, understand the basics (freedom to teach and produce research in one's discipline, with certain responsibilities), but they rarely see the importance of academic freedom and shared governance.
This book provides a very readable "basics" to the history of, and current controversies about academic freedom.

Your overview of the book's key arguments is excellent. I second Flavia's concluding point: I urge every academic to read this book.

Anonymous said...

Flavia, thanks for a clear and helpful post on the book. Sounds like exactly what I've been wishing for on the topic.