Response to Wilson’s Critique of Peter Wood

BY DAVID RANDALL

David Randall, the Director of Communications at the National Association of Scholars, has written a response to John K. Wilson’s critique of Peter Wood’s “The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom.” We’ve decided to put it up as a guest post, since it’s a little long for a blog comment. It’s written in the form of a letter to Wilson, and we’re keeping the format he wrote it in.

Dear Dr. Wilson,

I saw your response to Peter Wood’s Architecture; thank you for taking the time to give it a thoughtful critique! By way of breaking a lance to affirm the honor of my liege and all that, I’d like to make a counter-critique, if I may.

My first point would be that a good part of your critique of Wood’s Architecture simply repeats your differing conceptions of academic freedom: Wood critiques the dominant (hegemonic?) conception of academic freedom, and you reply that his conception of academic freedom conflicts with yours. For example, you say that “truth-determining is in conflict with truth-seeking and academic freedom.” This is in some ways a repetition of Wood’s argument, that academic priorities are determinations of truth, but at the same time simply rejecting without consideration Wood’s contention that these are complementary modes, that freedom to say what you will in some room of the house does not speak to the determination of the house’s architecture. When you repeat that the existence of a floor abrogates academic freedom, I don’t think too much is gained.

Some other critiques you make strike me as true, but not deadly. For example, when you say that Wood’s use of lernfreiheit is without precedent, I think you’re right: he’s innovated upon the traditional concept of lernfreiheit, and in the process given us an expansive new conception of the liberty of the student. This strikes me as a good thing, all in all. Then when you criticize Wood for praising civility, on the grounds that civility can be invoked to suppress freedom, I can’t dispute that Humpty-Dumptyism is the latest tribute that vice pays to virtue. But I think it would be more sensible to think that when Wood praises civility, he actually means to praise civility; and that criticism of those who misuse civility should be directed at them, not at Wood.

Aside from that, I believe you transmit Wood’s arguments to your readers imperfectly at some points. For example, he doesn’t define academic freedom as “the freedom not to hear ideas you dislike,” and he doesn’t argue “that people of a certain viewpoint (whether liberal or conservative) must be exclusively hired for the sake of intellectual diversity.” I’d say these are somewhat tendentious paraphrases—argumentum ad straw-hominem. So a fair part of your critique doesn’t really seem to me to be speaking directly to Wood.

That said, there surely are some points of real disagreement between the two of you, which I find very interesting. Most importantly, I take you to conceive of freedom as an opposition to authority, rather than its complement. That is, you don’t regard “the freedom of the professor” as necessarily implying “the authority of the professor”—and the unbounded freedom of the faculty as, in effect, an authoritarian professoriate. Wood’s more complementary conception of freedom bound up with authority—responsibility, in another of its faces—conceives of a distribution of freedoms and authorities among the different offices of the university. Stepping back a moment from polemic, I think a more descriptive way of putting it is that you endorse some sort of pure Lockean (Kantian?) conception of the university, while Wood’s conception is more Madisonian—an academic republic, with the different offices working together to produce a stable free regime. This is intended to be “authoritarian” in much the same way that it is “authoritarian” for Congress and the President to have some ability to check one another’s unbridled desires.

I think it’s also a Lockean touch on your part to conceive of all members of the university as identical in nature—on a professorial mold. Everyone should have the rights of a professor—graduate students, undergraduate students, librarians, Old Tom Hobbledehoy and all—even though no one else at a university is a professor. Now, any good revisionist will tell you that Lockean universalism disguises the hegemony of white bourgeois men beneath a self-serving definition of the universal man; this sort of critique seems far more apt for a critique of your Lockean university, where universalism modeled on a professor works to forward the hegemony of the professoriate. Wood’s model instead pays attention to the different roles of the different members of the university, and conceives of a freedom appropriate for each of them. You accuse Wood of being authoritarian for not thinking that every member of the university is a little professor; if the epithet is to be bandied about, I do think it applies more to your procrustean professorial prototype.

I see your professor-centeredness also register, by the by, in the way you zero in on a great and terrible nightmare—that professors might get punished for violating student academic freedom. I take it that the heart of the academy universal is that professors should have right of clergy and ‘scape whipping? I confess I do daydream of assigning a term in the stocks for crimes against academic freedom such as (say) teaching an Introduction to Literary Theory class consisting entirely of the works of Frederic Jameson. Practically speaking, the articulation of student academic freedom as a normative ideal is more at issue—to be used in tenure decisions—in combination with censure of egregiously propagandistic professors. But in theory, yes, Wood’s conception does allow for the possibility that professors could get punished for violating student academic freedom, and that they wouldn’t be the sole judges of their own misdeeds.

This part of Wood’s argument relates to something else you object to, that academic freedom pertains to the public as well, and isn’t delegated irrevocably to the professoriate. I find it difficult to understand this objection entirely: you seem to be saying that the public plays a role in the creation of an academic freedom, but that its responsibility carries with it no accompanying share of that freedom. More practically, you seem to be saying that professors have a permanent right to draw a salary, and that the public has no right to object. In theory and in practice, these seem somewhat undemocratic assertions. Most practically of all, your conception of academic freedom reduces the public’s role in the university to the crude mechanism of turning the flow of dollars on and off. Wood’s conception instead allows the public a role in the university parallel to that of a patron of the arts, whose judgment of taste works in complement with that of the artist. Such a scheme actually demands more of the public—to grant academic freedom to the public is to insist that they use it responsibly too. You seem to think that Wood’s scheme will impose upon the professoriate; it seems to me that what is striking about the scheme is how much more it requires of the public.

But all this is perhaps a little beside the point. A great deal of your argument seems to be that Wood’s theory might in some hypothetical circumstance be used to restrict liberty. Nothing is impossible: Buddhism is supposed to support pacifism, and there have been Buddhist warrior monks. Yet the point of Wood’s Architecture is to address our actual circumstances, right now—a wave of crybully attempts, generally justified by aspects of progressive ideology, to shut down academic freedom on campus. Your theory, and the AAUP’s, is failing to defend academic freedom from this threat, as witness your own words: “any attempt to ban all loud noises and protests … would pose a real threat to student academic freedom.” I can’t assure you that Wood’s theory is perfect in all circumstances, but it seems better suited than yours to defend academic freedom here and now. If it isn’t useful at some point in the future, that will be the occasion to come up with some new and better theory. But the better test of these theories is how they fare now rather than how they would fare in one of an infinite number of hypothetical scenarios.

Thank you for indulging my somewhat lengthy response! I do hope you and your readers might find it interesting. And again, thank you for taking the time to read The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, and to write up your thoughts on it.

David Randall

Director of Communications

National Association of Scholars

One thought on “Response to Wilson’s Critique of Peter Wood

  1. I think the architectural metaphor for academic freedom gets a bit wobbly when you claim that truth-determining by a university is the “floor” necessary for academic freedom. Conservatives are often fond of the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report which I think has many flaws but is correct on a key premise: the ideal university does not determine truths for its members, but instead allows for the free expression of different views about what the truth is.

    I don’t think you can defend civility on the grounds that the blame falls solely on those who misuse it; if civility is inherently vague and subject to abuse, then endorsing its use as punishment is misguided. Moreover, civility is contrary to truth-seeking: it is focused purely on the form of rhetorical expression rather than the truth being expressed. And certainly civility is being used in the real world right now to suppress academic freedom, as Steven Salaita can tell you.

    I don’t think models of government help us to understand universities, because they are corporations with top-down management models. The purpose of academic freedom (and shared governance) is to say that higher education should be different from other corporations, that it works best when mere employees and customers are given the freedom to speak and a role in helping to run the university. Although freedom is a fundamental value of colleges, I don’t think that everyone has the rights of a professor: professors have stronger rights in the realm of the classroom, and in shared governance, due to their expertise. I do agree that professors can be punished for violating student academic freedom; I just think that Wood misunderstands what student academic freedom should be.

    As for the idea that universities should be run like democratic art galleries, with the public as the patron of the arts deciding what art should be shown (and what scientific research is best), I find that very frightening. I don’t want to see academic research turned into an episode of American Idol. When it comes to freedom, I am completely undemocratic: no one’s freedom of speech should be subject to a majority vote on its merits. That undemocratic position is essential for a democracy.

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