On the Job: Stanley Fish on Academic Freedom

‘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.

5 thoughts on “On the Job: Stanley Fish on Academic Freedom

  1. Not having read the book, basing this comment only on the blog entry, it must be pointed out that the entire structure of the professoriate resembles the guilds: assistant, associate, full professor parallels with apprentice, journeyman and master.

    Guilds are not businesses in the contemporary commercial sense because they not only safeguard jobs but also a community of practitioners and the standards of excellence for the profession. They are closer to unions but lack the employer/employee adversarial relationship and do not simply reward pure seniority, as unions do, but rather establish seniority based on performance, achievement and excellence.

    We could use a lot more of the mentality of a guild in most of our faculty senates today. The AAUP founders were far more steeped in the traditions of the guild — thence the emphasis on academic freedom and governance as the inter-related tandem protected by tenure.

    • When I chose to quote Fish’s line using guilds, I thought about just what you are saying. No, as you say, guilds are not “businesses in the contemporary commercial sense,” but they are an inward-looking structure protecting their own members (and their putative excellence). Academic freedom, however, by the vision put forward by the 1915 Declaration, is something more than that. There’s tacit recognition of guild-like necessities in mention of the first “element.” The other two “elements,” however, are distinctly un-guildlike for they look outward to roles beyond the profession of researcher and scholar. One could even argue that the intent of the Declaration was to move the nascent AAUP and the concept of academic freedom beyond mere guild structures. One could also argue that this is what opens up “academic freedom” to misuse and to attack, however necessary one might believe that the concept is.

  2. I take issue with Barlow’s uncritical notion of “the concept of higher education” and find no reason to use gendered language at strong points (“emasculation”) to close his argument.

    I have not read the work reviewed in question, but I have read much of his other work. What I suspect Fish is getting at is exactly the demolition of your concept of “higher education.”

    Higher education for who? What makes it higher? Who decides what is considered ‘higher’?

    Fish’s answer, I assume from my knowledge of his other works, is that academics decide what is considered ‘higher.’ Their decision is not an ethical decision, it’s an aesthetic decision, in the Kantian sense of a judgment (see his Critique of Judgment). Academics decide what they ‘like’ and what they ‘like more’ is considered ‘higher.’ They are academics because other academics before them, and then other institutions filled with academics, appointed them worthy of making such judgments; so there is a tradition of decision-making.

    “Academic freedom is in the eye of the beholder” makes perfect sense to me as an aesthetic judgment. Educators make decisions concerning which students are performing appropriately for the class, and grade them accordingly; that is according to their biases. “Higher education” is not universally understood; it is subjectively understood by the practitioners of its profession: the academics.

    There is nothing cynical about academics being engaged in a job teaching their profession. What is cynical to me is an academic who is so sure of the greatness of our academic system that she or he fears that Stanley Fish has the power to ’emasculate’ it. Academia is a church, but it is not a universal one. Its priests — academics — are ‘higher’ men and women; but its teachings are not higher than the men and women who teach. The responsibility of academics is to teach their craft in accordance to their job description. The responsibility of academics is not to make the world (or the US) a better place; it is not “to restore education to a place of real contribution to society” (whatever that would entail). That would be haughty and mendacious!

  3. Pingback: 2014 Through the Academe Blog: November | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.