Political sentiments aside, academic freedom must be earned
By Jason Schwalm
A professor’s personal political sentiments have little place in the classroom. Although recently opposed by many self-described conservative columnists, unprofessional insertion of personal ideology occurs by lecturers of both political stripes. There are as many stories about anti-Bush diatribes delivered by English professors as there are about vehemently pro-Israel Middle East Studies professors who humiliate students with Palestinian sympathies.
University of San Diego School of Law professor Larry Alexander scathingly addresses this issue in his recent article, “Academic Freedom.” He explains that academic freedom rests less on the First Amendment and more on the professional standards adopted by universities, and defines academic freedom as “a privilege of academics that carries with it a responsibility, namely, to act as academics.”
How does one act as an academic? Alexander goes on to claim that an academic must diligently comply with the requirements of objective inquiry in order to retain academic freedom. When academics act as pundits in the classroom, they dangerously inject a political character into universities, and carefully crafted logical reasoning and evidenciary support are replaced by data-blind political advocacy. The name of the game then becomes not scholarship, but orthodoxy, and everyone suffers.
This is a perfectly reasonable claim, and one that most people would support at face value. So why is it relegated, by many, to the status of a conservative talking point? Because most thinkers purportedly arguing for the de-politicization of the academy are actually arguing for the re-politicization of the academy in their favor.
Take for example a response to The Louisville Cardinal’s article, “Voting: a white privilege.” Dr. Ben Foster, a U of L accounting professor who has written a great deal on the subject of political bias in academia takes issue with Terra Simms’ account of assimilation. Simms states that sociologists define assimilation as “the process by which a minority group adopts the customs and attitudes of the dominant group.”
Dr. Foster does not argue that sociology as a discipline (or this concept in particular) has been hijacked by a certain political agenda. He does not explain that the social sciences often seem caught in a trap of constantly privileging minority culture, purposefully at the expense of majority culture, in an ill-fated pursuit of balance, all while simultaneously demonizing anyone who gives even limited support to the notion that if a majority of people follow a certain practice, it is occasionally because that practice has been field-tested by experience and is consequently more reliable.
Those would be perfectly reasonable claims. But instead, Dr. Foster only responds, “can groups that refuse assimilation on most levels expect equal benefits derived from a society and economy?”
Of course they can. So long as a citizen of the United States works, pays taxes and does not commit any crime, that person can believe whatever he or she wishes. If the U.S. government intended for all U.S. citizens to share the same values, the privileges of citizenship would not be conferred at birth, but only by proof of acquiescence. There’s a word for that: fascism.
Nevertheless, Dr. Foster’s hollow defense of the status quo, right or wrong, is not the major problem with his article. The problem is, after complaining about political rhetoric in classrooms, he can think of nothing else to do than offer another political sentiment to replace the first.
“When I attended public schools,” he says, “teachers and most students considered the United States as the greatest country in the world.” Dr. Foster misses the point.
For an appropriately apolitical university, professors’ opinions about the United States, positive or negative, are not necessary. Arguing against classroom politics while seeking to replace radicalism with patriotism is obviously a dog that just won’t hunt.
And so, insofar as he encourages a skeptical student body that makes its own decisions, Dr. Ben Foster and I are allies. I just hope they don’t listen to him too carefully.