Josh Rosenau's picture

The Disco. ‘tute as Humpty Dumpty

Humpty Dumpty illustration from a 1917 edition of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

Sarah Posner recently looked into a creationist law being prepared in Pennsylvania’s legislature, quoting me a fair bit, including the observation, “By passing these new ‘academic freedom’ laws, legislators are ‘trying to change what academic freedom means,’ Rosenau said.” It’s a good quote, accurate, pithy, memorable, and I was glad to see it.

The Discovery Institute’s Joshua Youngkin, a lawyer and erstwhile sysadmin, apparently has the unenviable responsibility of promoting bills like this, and he was displeased. Unfortunately, his response consists largely of furiously insisting that words don’t mean anything.

Consider Youngkin’s immediate response to my quote about the prospective bill’s changing what academic freedom means:

But Rosenau is confused.

There is no such thing as “what academic freedom means.”

(Emphasis Youngkin’s.)

He relies, for this claim, on a speech by Stanley Fish, an unpublished book of Fish’s, and an unpublished journal volume about Fish. Until those sources are actually published, it’ll be rather hard to check his interpretation. He notes in passing that the American Association of University Professors has had a code of academic freedom for over 90 years, and acknowledges that “academic freedom made its way into court cases and, in part because of that, into university handbooks on faculty rights and responsibilities,” but somehow still thinks academic freedom has no established meaning.

Even “a nonlawyer and nonacademic” like myself can examine the body of case law and tradition surrounding academic freedom, and I did so in writing my 2009 paper “Leap of Faith: Intelligent Design’s Trajectory after Dover,” for the University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy.

To summarize: academic freedom principally applies to the freedom of researchers to conduct and communicate their research, and is always more constrained in the classroom; academic freedom is construed more broadly at the university level than at the secondary or primary school level (in part because college professors are communicating their own research in ways that high school teachers are not); academic freedom involves a balance between the power of a teacher and the power of the administration to set an overall academic direction. (As in Judge—now Justice—Alito’s ruling in Bishop v. Aronov: “[A]cademic freedom thrives not only on the independent and uninhibited exchange of ideas among teachers and students, but also…on autonomous decisionmaking by the academy itself”). Creationists have tried repeatedly to use “academic freedom” as an excuse to attack evolution and promote creationist ideas, and those efforts have been consistently refused by the courts.

Another place you can find a similar argument is an essay by none other than Stanley Fish. There’s no small irony in Youngkin’s reliance on Stanley Fish, since he’s often regarded as a postmodernist and a moral relativist. He’s argued, “‘There is no such thing as free speech,’ because everything is contextual, pragmatic, and political. There are no abstract principles outside of society and history.” He defends campus speech codes, and stuck up for Social Text even after Alan Sokal’s infamous hoax was published there. Liberal and conservative scholars alike have decried his work as advocating for unprincipled sophistry. He is, in many ways, the model of a modern major postmodernist, the very sort of figure you’d think the conservative, theologically-driven Discovery Institute would shy away from, but which they nonetheless glom onto with enthusiasm.

Now, Youngkin clearly feels a special connection with Fish, since his Disco. ‘tute bio specifically mentions that he took a class with Fish, so far be it for me to go all Annie Hall here. And far be it for me to accept that Stanley Fish is the final voice on what academic freedom is (or isn’t). Either way, Youngkin’s thoughts about “academic freedom” are surely fishy, but there’s room to doubt that they are Fishy. Fish’s essay states (while discussing For the Common Good, a book on academic freedom by Matthew Finkin and Robert Post):

academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.”

This, more or less, was a central point in my law review piece. Apparently Fish’s and my views are not as deeply divergent as Youngkin claims.

In the context of a high school biology class, the tasks at hand are rather different than they would be at the college or university level, with which most of Fish’s academic freedom discourse is concerned. Again, university professors are also researchers, and the classes they teach are one way they communicate that research. High school teachers are generally not researchers, and their obligation in the classroom is principally to lay a foundation for future learning, not to communicate new research. As such, these teachers are rightly much more strongly constrained by state standards, statewide exams, district curriculum, and contracts specifying their obligation to adhere to those guidelines and the rules of their district.

Similarly, Fish writes:

There is, Finkin and Post insist, “a fundamental distinction between holding faculty accountable to professional norms and holding them accountable to public opinion. The former exemplifies academic freedom: the latter undermines it.”

Professional norms for teachers are clear: the leading scientific and science education societies have all agreed that evolution should be taught as the foundation of modern biology, and that intelligent design, other forms of creationism, and pseudoscientific or discredited attacks on evolution should not be taught. State science standards generally respect that guidance, as do state tests and approved textbooks. The “academic freedom” laws would take power away from such professional bodies, allowing students to exercise a heckler’s veto over teachers, and teachers to ignore those professional norms in preference for popular, but scientifically unjustified, antievolution attitudes.

As Fish writes, (approvingly quoting Finkin and Post at the end), “Holding faculty accountable to professional norms exemplifies academic freedom because it highlights the narrow scope of that freedom, which does not include the right of faculty ‘to research and publish in any manner they personally see fit.’” Yet Youngkin’s bill purports to grant teachers parallel power, to teach in any manner they see fit. Whatever else it might be, that is clearly not what Fish believes academic freedom means.

In that essay, Fish also addresses the point about teachers going beyond the curriculum to bring in extraneous or contentious topics. Finkin and Post posit an English history teacher engaging students by drawing a parallel between King George III’s behavior during the American Revolution and George W. Bush’s conduct in Iraq. Fish writes:

But we only have to imagine the class discussion generated by this parallel to see what is in fact wrong with introducing it. Bush, rather than King George, would immediately become the primary reference point of the parallel, and the effort to understand the monarch’s conduct of his war would become subsidiary to the effort to find fault with Bush’s conduct of his war. Indeed, that would be immediately seen by the students as the whole point of the exercise. Why else introduce a contemporary political figure known to be anathema to most academics if you were not inviting students to pile it on, especially in the context of the knowledge that this particular king was out of his mind?

Sure, getting students to be interested in the past is a good thing, but there are plenty of ways to do that without taking the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting. Finkin and Post are right to say that “educational relevance is to be determined…by the heuristic purposes and consequences of a pedagogical intervention”; but this intervention has almost no chance of remaining pedagogical; its consequences are predictable, and its purposes are suspect.

The same exact analysis applies to these “academic freedom” bills, and their obsessive focus on evolution. No one has ever explained why these bills single out science classrooms for their redefinition of academic freedom, nor why evolution, the origin of life, climate change, and human cloning should be selected out of the body of scientific topics for special scrutiny. To paraphrase Fish: Sure, promoting critical thinking is a good thing, but there are ways to do that without the risk (no doubt being courted) that intellectual inquiry will give way to partisan venting. This intervention has almost no chance of remaining pedagogical; its consequences are predictable, and its purposes are suspect.

Image source: Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, (Rand-McNally, 1917 edition). Illustrated by F. Y. Cory.