Thursday, February 20, 2014

Academic Freedom, Academic Justice, and Academic Indoctrination

In a wrong-headed article in the Harvard Crimson (The Doctrine of Academic Freedom), published a couple of days ago, Harvard student Sandra Y. L. Korn justifies the denial of academic freedom by resorting to something she think is a far higher goal - academic justice. She doesn't seem to realize that her argument stifles diversity of research and opinion, and that ultimately it could be used against her by those who consider her to be a purveyor of academic injustice. Devotion to freedom of thought or speech does not appear to be one of her values.

She begins by approving of the actions of the SDS, back in the early 1970s, in trying to get Harvard to fire Richard Herrnstein, the psychologist who argued that I.Q. was almost entirely dependent upon heredity (see here for an abstract of his article on I.Q. in The Atlantic). The SDS had argued that "Herrnstein's theories have been discredited, that they justify the oppression of minorities, and that they are false and dangerous."

Herrnstein responded to the attacks on him by the students: "What bothers me is this: Something has happened at Harvard this year that makes it hazardous for a professor to teach certain kinds of views.” As Korn writes, Harvard's deans "expressed concerns about student activists’ 'interference with the academic freedom and right to speak of a member of the Harvard faculty.'" She asks, "Did SDS activists at Harvard infringe on Herrnstein’s academic freedom? The answer might be that yes, they did—but that’s not the most important question to ask. Student and faculty obsession with the doctrine of 'academic freedom' often seems to bump against something I think much more important: academic justice."

And what is "academic justice," as opposed to academic freedom? Korn answers: "If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of 'academic freedom'?"

Instead of academic freedom, Korn writes that the academy should adopt the standard of "academic justice": "When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue."

And how should the academic community "ensure that this research does not continue"?

She suggests that because Harvard Government professor Harvey Mansfield is conservative and writes sexist books about women that she "would happily organize with other feminists on campus to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position. 'Academic freedom' might permit such an offensive view of rape to be published; academic justice would not."

Being a feminist, I don't agree with Harvey Mansfield on the proper roles of men and women, but neither do I think that Harvard faculty members (or professors at any college or university) should be forbidden to publish on certain topics because their views do not meet with the approval of people who consider themselves devoted to "academic justice."

Why is Korn digging up the ancient cases of the accusations of racism against Herrnstein and of sexism against Mansfield? The real point of her article is to argue that the standard of "academic justice" should be used to argue in favor of the academic boycott of Israel. She's unhappy that the President of Harvard condemned the vote of the American Studies Association to join the academic boycott of Israel. And she doesn't like the fact that those who argue for the boycott maintain that its purpose is to increase academic freedom for Palestinians. 

In her opinion, "Those defending the academic boycott should use a more rigorous standard. The ASA, like three other academic associations, decided to boycott out of a sense of social justice, responding to a call by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions until Israel ends its occupation of Palestine. People on the right opposed to boycotts can play the “freedom” game, calling for economic freedom to buy any product or academic freedom to associate with any institution. Only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand." ("Those who care about justice" are the supporters of the academic boycott of Israel).

Not only does Korn's argument have an unpleasant aroma of moral superiority about it, since she arrogates to herself and those who agree with her the right to decide what is just, and then use that standard to judge other people, it is also distinctly illiberal. According to her, colleges and universities should not be free to foster many different research paths, in an attempt to increase the store of knowledge available to their students and the community at large. Such an approach also allows for criticism and the discovery of new evidence that disproves other views. Korn is arguing, to the contrary, that a Harvard education should be an exercise in indoctrination, not education.

1 comment:

  1. As well as being opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, I agree with the wider points you make about academic freedom more generally here. But it is also my sense that some anti-boycott measures taken, or considered, recently *also* seem illiberal.

    I am not quite sure about this. There's an irony in the boycotter's complaint about being submitted to a litmus test when that could be said to be what the Israel boycott does too.