‘Academic freedom is in the eye of the beholder.’ That, I think, will be the most common takeaway by readers of Stanley Fish’s new book Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (Chicago: University of Chicago Press). After all, he breaks the concept into five “schools”: The “It’s just a job” school (his own favorite); the “For the common good” school; the “Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings” school; the “Academic freedom as critique” school; and the “Academic freedom as revolution” school. Most of us, as we read, will not identify particularly well with any of these, making us itch to each add our own “schools.” That, at least, was the case for me.
There’s a peculiar insularity to the book. It assumes, for example, a unity of purpose within the academy: The goal (to boil it down) is critical inquiry. Academic freedom, in Fish’s mind, only relates to this. But that’s only the goal for a limited few, most of whom inhabit offices in the stratosphere of the “research” institution. For the rest of us, mere mortals, the goals are both more and more varied and academic freedom needs to cover a broader range of activities if it is to have meaning at all. The founders of the AAUP understood this when they were formulating their first statement on academic freedom, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. They wrote:
Academic freedom… comprises three elements: freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action. The first of these is almost everywhere so safeguarded that the dangers of its infringement are slight. It may therefore be disregarded in this report. The second and third phases of academic freedom are closely related, and are often not distinguished. The third, however, has an importance of its own, since of late it has perhaps more frequently been the occasion of difficulties and controversies than has the question of freedom of intra-academic teaching. (http://aaup.org/report/1915-declaration-principles-academic-freedom-and-academic-tenure)
Fish, though he refers to the Declaration a dozen times in his book, ignores the second and third of these elements as parts of the academic “job” (more on that word later). By doing so, he reduces academic freedom by two-thirds and makes it, as the writers of the Declaration imply about the first element (the only one that remains, to Fish), noncontroversial and unthreatening.
Instead of imagining the academy that is an institution of inquiry, education and engagement, Fish sees it as a home for the “job” of research and hones his vision of academic freedom accordingly. He also uses his limited definition of the concept to demolish most of the other “schools” he outlines (he has sympathy only for the second).
Fish writes that “Although academic freedom is celebrated in grand, indeed grandiose, terms, it is at base a guild slogan that speaks to the desire of the academic profession to run its own shop.” For me, there’s an assumption behind this that I just cannot accept, that academic institutions are, at their essence, commercial enterprises. Fish does not say “It’s just a job” for no reason; he says it because he sees the academy in an employer/employee/customer paradigm–something I absolutely reject. Yes, the application of “marketplace” thinking has expanded into almost every aspect of contemporary life, but that does not mean such thinking is either correct or useful.
In fact, the movement toward business models of education has been nothing but detrimental to education, moving it from a position as a contributor to society in the three realms (or “elements”) of the Declaration to a means of certification and a place for development of commercial applications. In such a debased vision of education, perhaps Fish’s version of academic freedom can make some sense. To those of us who want to restore education to a place of real contribution to society, however, it cannot be accepted.
Academic freedom, when seen in all of its elements, can be a sticky and amorphous concept. Certainly, it can be abused and twisted. What it cannot be is reduced. Not without reducing the entire concept of higher education. Without ever saying he is doing so, Fish participates in the emasculation of what has long been one of the greatest contributors to American culture, society and riches, its colleges and universities. For a scholar, that’s a shame.