Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Elephants Are Attacking the Ivory Towers

The issue of possible political bias in the academy and has been generating considerable attention in the blogosphere, perhaps most notably in Michael Bérubé's talk on "Academic Freedom."

I recently wrote that the threat of conservative policing from alumni in the UCLA case had been overblown by well-meaning but media illiterate faculty. In contrast, Bérubé's post focuses, quite rightfully, on what I also identified as the more substantive danger of legislative oversight. The country's network of public higher education is particularly vulnerable to these pressures. Bérubé warns that right-wing pro-"balance" lobbyists are poised to enforce populist agendas for learning on the academy. It's not so much the quashing of minority opinions by the majority that's at issue for Bérubé, as much as the denial of intellectually (and sometimes morally) complex ideas by the repressive functions of mass psychology.

Bérubé makes a clever point about how these right wing activists are using the very language of affirmative action to undermine one of its chief sites of social practice, by claiming that political conservatives are underrepresented minorities who should be admitted to the liberals' exclusive social club. Stanley Fish has similarly pointed in his article on "Academic Cross-dressing" in Harper's that the Right has appropriated other arguments from the Left, so that relativism and tolerance are now being used to question Natuaral Selection and prop up Intelligent Design.

I'm not sure Bérubé is completely correct that "academic freedom" should be treated as a natural right, alongside other Enlightenment principles, because it still assumes an oligarchy of the learned. Even if academic freedom is extended to students, librarians, and those teaching in the K-12 environment, many could be excluded who haven't made the knowledge industry their explicit avocation.

To me, the threats to academic freedom may be more subtle than we realize, and these threats may not arrive under the standard political banners of right or left. The forces challenging academic freedom may also be targeting life-long learners as well, particularly as greater restrictions are placed on citizens' use of computer networks by those in power from both political parties who are concerned about obscenity, terrorism, and copyright infringement. As was the case in the Loyalty Oath Controversy of 1949-1951, legislators from all parts of the political spectrum may cooperate to limit our intellectual liberties, particularly when the issue of national security takes center stage.

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