Bérubé on the Place of Plebiscites in the Classroom

I want to scribble a little more on all this about religion, and is the glass half full or half full of wormwood, and what’s so wrong with ‘faith’ – though I’m not sure I need to after G’s eloquent and incisive summation. I probably will anyway though, because I like trying to scrape down to the bottom of things. Besides, the discussion is prompting some brilliant replies, so why stop now.

But that will take me awhile, and in the meantime I want to point out some great stuff in a talk on academic freedom Michael Bérubé gave on Thursday and then posted on his site.

The principle of academic freedom stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it expressly insists that professors should have autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research. In this respect it is one of the legacies of the Enlightenment, which sought – successfully, in those nations most influenced by the Enlightenment – to free scientists and humanists from the dictates of church and state. And it is precisely that autonomy from legislative and religious oversight that helped to fuel the extraordinary scientific and intellectual efflorescence in the West over the past two centuries; it has also served as one of the cornerstones of the free and open society, in contrast to societies in which certain forms of research will not be pursued if they displease the General Secretary or the Council of Clerics.

Yep. Here we are right now, at this very moment, saying things that would displease the Council of Clerics and George ‘W’ Bush, and no one is stopping us. No small benefit.

…most critics of universities don’t seem to distinguish between unconscious liberal bias and conscious, articulate liberal convictions. They take the language of “bias” from critiques of the so-called liberal media, where it is applied to outlets like the New York Times and CBS News that, in the view of some conservatives, lend a leftish slant to the news both deliberately and unwittingly. But the language of “bias” is not very well suited to the work of, say, a researcher who has spent decades investigating American drug policy or conflicts in the Middle East and who has come to conclusions that amount to more or less “liberal” critiques of current policies. Such conclusions are not “bias”; rather, they are legitimate, well-founded beliefs, and of course they should be presented – ideally, along with legitimate competing beliefs – in college classrooms. Now, notice that I said legitimate competing beliefs. We have no obligation to debate whether the Holocaust happened. And that’s not a hypothetical matter. Late last fall, the philosopher with whom I co-founded the Penn State chapter of the AAUP, Claire Katz, informed me of a graduate teaching assistant in philosophy who had just had a very strange encounter with a student. The course, which dealt with bioethics, had recently dealt with the vile history of experiments on unwitting and/or unwilling human subjects, from the Holocaust to Tuskegee, and the student wanted to know whether the “other side” would be presented as well.

A very useful distinction, and a staggering anecdote. Oh yes, the ‘other side’ of the debate over whether or not to experiment on unwilling/unwitting humans. Or slavery, or genocide. (Interesting that torture is no longer on that list.)

Then Michael discusses accountability, and agrees that public universities should indeed be accountable for how they spend money, for instance. But –

But that does not mean that legislators and taxpayers have the right, or the ability, to determine the direction of academic fields of research. And I say this with all due respect to my fellow citizens: you have every right to know that your money is not being wasted. But you do not have the right to suggest that the biology department should make room for promoters of Intelligent Design; or that the astronomy department should take stock of the fact that many people believe more in astrology than in cosmology; or that the history department should concentrate more on great leaders and less on broad social movements; or that the philosophy department should put more emphasis on deontological rather than on utilitarian conceptions of the social contract. The people who teach these subjects in public universities actually do have expertise in their fields, an expertise they have accumulated throughout their lives. And this is why we believe that decisions about academic affairs should be conducted by means of peer review rather than by plebescite. It’s a difficult contradiction to grasp: on the one hand, professors at public universities should be accountable and accessible to the public; but on the other hand, they should determine the intellectual direction of their fields without regard to public opinion or political fashion. This is precisely why academic freedom is so invaluable: it creates and sustains educational institutions that are independent of demographic variables. Which is to say: from Maine to California, the content of a public university education should not depend on whether 60 percent of the population doubts evolution or whether 40 percent of the population of a state believes in angels – and, more to the point, the content of a university education should be independent of whatever political party is in power at any one moment in history.

That last passage is something of a manifesto all on its own, and a dang good one.

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