Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Stanley Fish: Are Academics Different?

New York Times:  Are Academics Different?, by Stanley Fish:

[Matthew W. Finkin & Robert C. Post, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (2009):]  "[A]cademic freedom has in recent decades increasingly come to be conceived of as an individual right to be asserted against all forms of university regulation.” . . . [T]he university may pay my salary, provide me with a platform, benefits, students, an office, secretarial help and societal status, but I retain my right to act in disregard of its interests; indeed I am obliged by academic freedom to do so.

It would be hard to imagine another field of endeavor in which employees believe that being attentive to their employer’s goals and wishes is tantamount to a moral crime. But this is what many (not all) academics believe, and if pressed they will support their belief by invoking a form of academic exceptionalism, the idea that while colleges and universities may bear some of the marks of places of employment — work-days, promotions, salaries, vacations, meetings, etc. — they are really places in which something much more rarefied than a mere job goes on. . . .

One sees from this and similar statements that an understanding of academic freedom as a right unbound by the conditions of employment goes hand in hand with, and is indeed derived from, an understanding of higher education as something more than a job to be performed; rather it is a calling to be taken up and followed wherever it may lead, even if it leads to a flouting of the norms that happen to be in place in the bureaucratic spaces that house (but do not define) this exalted enterprise. . . .

The alternative is to understand academic freedom as a much more earthbound thing, as a freedom tailored to and constrained by the requirements of a particular job. And this would mean reasoning from the nature of the job to a specification of the degree of latitude those who are employed to do it can be said to enjoy. This is Finkin’s and Post’s position: “Academic freedom is not the freedom to speak or teach just as one wishes. It is the freedom to pursue the scholarly profession … according to the norms and standards of that profession.”

Statements like this are likely to provoke the objection that “Academe should not be a Business or a Corporation” . . . . But that is a fake issue. Saying that higher education has a job to do (and that the norms and standards of that job should control professorial behavior) is not the same as saying that its job is business. It is just to say that it is a job and not a sacred vocation, and that while it may differ in many ways from other jobs — there is no discernible product and projects may remain uncompleted for years without negative consequences for researchers — its configurations can still be ascertained (it is not something ineffable) and serve as the basis of both expectations and discipline.

So these are the two conceptions of academic freedom that are in play: academic freedom as the freedom to do the academic job (understood by reference to university norms and requirements); and academic freedom as the freedom to chart your own way, to go boldly where no man or woman has gone before, constrained only by your inner sense of what is right and true. ...

Once again we see that the argument for academic freedom as a right rather than as a desirable feature of professional life rests on the assertion of academic exceptionalism. What I have been trying to say is that w]hile academic work is different — it’s not business, it’s not medicine, it’s not politics — and while the difference should be valued, academic work should not be put into a category so special that any constraints on it, whether issuing from university administrators or from the state as an employer, are regarded as sins against morality, truth and the American Way.

It should be possible to acknowledge the distinctiveness of academic work and to put in place conditions responsive to that distinctiveness without making academic work into a holy mission taken up by a superior race of beings. ... Those who would defend academic freedom would do well to remove the halo it often wears. Stay away from big abstractions and remain tethered to work on the ground. If you say, “This is the job and if we are to do it properly, these conditions must be in place,” you’ll get a better hearing than you would if you say, “We’re professors and you’re not, so leave us alone to do what we like.”

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