Friday, July 11, 2008

Academic standards and academic freedom

Faced with the negative effects of "political correctness" and post-modernism on academia, some people feel there is a conflict between academic standards and academic freedom. An example is the recent El-Haj tenure controversy in anthropology at Columbia. But if we look closely at this or any other example, we will see over and over how academic standards and academic freedom stand or fall together.

Academia's only real purpose is knowledge, its discovery, preservation, understanding, and handing on. When academic decisions and values are informed by this principle, there are no such conflicts. Academic freedom and standards are so intertwined that it's impossible to separate them in practice. The freedom, of faculty and students, to ask questions, to seek and arrive at answers, and to burn away the false through open criticism are essential to the fully engaged enterprise of knowledge. Only when that purpose is no longer valued, is there a crisis. The final granting of tenure to El-Haj was the end point of a larger process that began in the late 1980s, when the universities began to be taken over by post-60s post-modernists, who look down on knowledge and reason as bourgeois, patriarchal, and otherwise objectionable. The destruction of academic standards cannot proceed without destroying academic freedom at the same time. Criticism and questions have to be suppressed. Something else -- social engineering, "diversity" -- is at work, and knowledge is no longer the purpose.

Post-modernists took over American academic departments, especially in the humanities, by selectively driving out or not hiring people with ideologically "incorrect" views. The minority of such people who were there in the 80s or 90s felt enough of a hassle -- from speech codes and "sensitivity training" -- to make it worth their while to simply leave. The result after 20 years is an academic world overwhelmingly (at least in the humanities) left-liberal and "post-modern" in its politics and view of the world. OTOH, student bodies, at least at large public schools, are close in their views to the larger societies. Hence, the eruption of PC censorship and intimidation at universities in the last 20 years.*

The American system of academic self-governance was set up in the 1920s and 30s largely to protect faculty and, to a lesser extent, students from arbitrary interference by trustees, state legislatures, political figures, donors, and so on. The "free knowledge" model certainly needs protection from such people, because they can and have overridden the "knowledge paradigm" with sometimes ill-informed intervention. As long as the larger society charges the university with its purposes concerning knowledge, such protections are necessary.

But this system, copied from the German universities in their classical period (before 1933), always had a fatal weakness. It assumed that the forces impinging on "free knowledge" could only come from outside the university. It was not designed to protect the university from those who wanted to destroy it from the inside. Thus, from the mid-60s on, the universities have been unable to consistently beat back internal threats to both academic freedom and standards. It could prevent politically-motivated firings of faculty by administrators or trustees in politically tense periods, like the 1930s or the early 1950s. It can help to stop what happened in communist countries -- an outside political force trying to "coordinate" all institutions in society and mold them into ideological conformity. But what it couldn't stop was what happened in Germany in early 1930s, when faculty and students themselves, from within, upended both standards and freedom as part of their participation in a larger, anti-rational political revolution.**

A slow-motion version of the same has been happening on American campuses since the late 1980s, even though there is no larger anti-rational political revolution: the 60s New Left was consistently and decisively rejected by voters. On campus, there are no book-burnings and little violence -- just a lot of slow-acting, but long-lasting, professional and ideological pressure. A few schools, and schools in certain areas of the country, have become refuges as the dominant paradigm at the top bicoastal schools changed and American academia entered its "post-liberal" era.

The cure is not anything as silly as "affirmative action for conservatives." The cure is to stop the application of the underlying anti-knowledge, anti-reason paradigm.
* The students bodies at the more expensive and elite schools are closer to the left-liberal or left politics of their faculties. It's been a long time since American liberalism was a political tendency of the "masses." For several decades, it's been a largely elite movement.

** Even now, there is little comprehension of what happened in Germany in that period. The gutting of German universities, including book-burnings, was an inside job.

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