Academic Freedom: Within or Against the University?

The Fly-Over Infoshop

Any investigation of a concept involving the term “freedom” should begin with a note of caution. The term has a key role in the Orwellian “newspeak” of contemporary culture, and in most cases, when it is more than a meaningless stimulant for propaganda, it has become reduced to a shallow conception of “choice” detached from concrete struggles for the improvement of peoples’ lives. So in approaching the concept of “academic freedom” today, it will be helpful to reflect on the meaning(s) of freedom, more broadly construed.

In a classic essay, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” Isaiah Berlin, using the terms “freedom” and “liberty” interchangeably, distinguished between freedom from and freedom to. The former referred to the freedom from coercive authority. This is the freedom one has when left alone to manage one’s own affairs, make one’s own choices and mistakes and fashion one’s own goals. By contrast, the latter concept, freedom to, is the ability to realize values, desires or potentialities in the world. In Berlin’s essay, ‘freedom to’ fares poorly, since, he argues, an orientation toward providing the conditions for the realization of values is premised upon the notion that the grand values – justice, equality, fraternity and so on – are ultimately reconcilable. Berlin decides, in absence of evidence of their reconcilability, that the protection of the first, more narrow, form of freedom is likely the best we can do.

“Academic freedom,” as it has usually been conceived within the liberal University, has implicitly agreed with Berlin on this point. The freedom of the tenured professor has been the freedom from the threat of censorship and from interference with the selection of topics for research. This fact is revealing. It suggests an awareness that free inquiry poses a threat to concentrated power, and that the institutions and agents of power have a certain interest in shaping or, indeed, repressing such an endeavor. The cost of this freedom is an obedience to the institutional rules and state laws in which the professor is situated. The professor, protected by the institution of tenure, inherits the potentially contradictory position articulated by Kant in his essay, “What is Enlightenment?” Enlightenment, for Kant, is “the emergence of man from his self-imposed tutelage,” and yet, should that ‘emergence’ come into conflict with the given laws, the would-be enlightener has a duty to separate thought from action: “argue all you want, but obey.” To put the matter plainly: knowledge that is dangerous, that calls into question the actual power relations of the society from which it is generated, must remain mere knowledge.

For a time, the identification of academic freedom with mere “freedom from” was perhaps justifiable. One could, perhaps, have had faith that, as long as the truth was being written and uncovered, its general acceptance could be guaranteed in due course. This progressivist faith is a widely, if unconsciously, held justification for the separation of critical knowledge and action. Those academics producing critical knowledge believe they are contributing, “in the long run,” to the betterment of humanity, and consider their academic freedom to also be a freedom from the expectation of immediate political implications for their work. Both the State and the People, it seems, must be held at arm’s length for the truth-seeker.

We submit that this progressivist faith is not merely untenable today, but is actually perverse. To the ears of those of us raised within ecocidal neoliberal Empire, saying one’s work is “for the long run” is equivalent to saying “let them eat cake.” With each new round of climate studies, we learn that the date of the apocalypse – whether in the form of ocean die-offs, ice cap melting, desertification, and so on – has been moved forward. We’ve stopped thinking about “the apocalypse” as something in the future, to be guarded against or averted, and come to see it as our own social environment, a slow motion train-wreck with which every existing institution, by virtue of its continued existence, has learned to collaborate. The University is no exception.

The University, as an institution devoted to any task so noble as “education,” likely no longer exists. Like the word “freedom,” the word “education” has been reconstructed as an ideological tool for reproducing Capital. What was once the University is now the Edu-Factory, an elaborate job-training center for a precarious, post-industrial economy, in which it is to one’s economic advantage to pretend that whatever one does, one does it not for the money, but out of some drive for personal fulfillment. The expectation that one has “failed” at life unless one finds personal fulfillment through a career has created a situation in which, in order to “succeed,” students must sever their desires from anything that can’t be fulfilled through a career. Education is no “leading out” of self-imposed tutelage, but rather “leading in” to a society of generalized human sacrifice to an economy that no longer demands our mere labor, but also insists we pretend to love it, by any pharmaceutical means necessary, lest we be cast out as “negative” or “downers.” Education is not actually preparation for economic life, but is in actuality a student’s first job, productive of surplus value for the banks who finance it through the decades of debt-peonage that come as its cost. “The University” as a place of higher learning is a fantasy in the minds of professors and their acolytes. The institution of tenure is the dream-world in which it is spun. Elimination of tenured positions within the university divests this fantastical idea of its material force. Graduate students can see this in a way that those professors insulated by tenure or its prospect cannot.

Within this context of the ever-shortening march toward ecological devastation and the wholesale transformation of the very nature of the University, in other words, the context of the historical refutation of any progressive assumptions about the relationship between the production of knowledge and the transformation of society, academic freedom as the mere “freedom from” outside intervention in research programs is morally vacuous. As long as the professor is caught in the split position of the Kantian enlightener (“argue all you want [with your colleagues], but obey [administrators]!”), her freedom is as irrelevant to the crises we face as is the freedom to choose between one of two corporate-sponsored political parties.

How could it be otherwise? In 1969, in a speech at UCLA, Angela Davis offered an alternative impetus for knowledge in society:

Of course knowledge has to be capable of transcending mere material necessity. It ought to be capable of transcending the present political and economic situation. But for what? Should knowledge be cooped up in a vacuum which is unrelated to human reality? My position is that knowledge has to transcend the immediate political reality for one purpose: for the purpose of transforming it.

Davis here presents us with a vision of what might be an “academic freedom to” – a conception of academic freedom that is not content to merely be left alone by the censors, but actually sees its own fulfillment in the process of reshaping the world in light of the truths it has discovered and fashioned.

One might protest: for this critical knowledge to animate struggle, academic freedom from interference with research must be defended as an ideal in itself. Clear threats today to this liberal conception of academic freedom no doubt exist. The case of Steven Salaita recently being hire-fired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and, a few years back, Norman Finkelstein’s falling out at Depaul are telling exemplars. Focus on these outstanding cases, however, risks occluding the ways in which the kind of academic freedom suggested by Davis is prevented by even the ideal state of a freedom that remains merely, well, academic.

Social struggles today have thankfully broken with the notion that there is a single “revolutionary subject,” be it workers, students, People of Color, or whatever other identity candidate has been inserted into the subaltern position of the dialectic. No one’s interests are meaningfully served by a society in which the conditions for life are destroying the conditions for life as such. The economic linkages that financialization has formed between every institution, means that disruption anywhere has the potential to create a ripple effect anywhere else. This means that knowledge-workers in the University, rather than seeing themselves as, at best, lending support to more “real world” struggles elsewhere, must transform the University itself into a site of struggle. Reflecting on the fact that the University today occupies a role in “developed” societies analogous to the factory in the early-to-mid 20th century, the Edu-Factory Collective writes:

What was once the factory is now the university. Where once the factory was a paradigmatic site of struggle between workers and capitalists, so now the university is a key space of conflict, where the ownership of knowledge, the reproduction of the labor force, and the creation of social and cultural stratifications are all at stake. This is to say the university is not just another institution subject to sovereign and governmental controls, but a crucial site in which wider social struggles are won and lost.

“Freedom” becomes an ideological weapon when its meaning becomes detached from the concrete struggles of those who would act freely. When freedom is reduced to a simple concept, whose presence or absence can be verified by bureaucrats with a checklist, it has been lost.

A non-trivial conception of academic freedom relative to our actual situation must begin from the understanding that knowledge meaningfully related to freedom must transverse the realm of the conceptual. This does not necessarily mean it must relate to concerns outside the academy. If the academy is itself a key site of reproducing an oppressive society, it is more important than ever that research and critique be focused on the University itself. Freedom within the academy has to entail resistance to the existing academy, action against the prevailing society informed by critical prognoses of it. It is in the process of challenging structures of power that one’s own thoughts become concrete, and that one learns how to see through the veils of concepts serving to separate academics from the experiences of others. Freedom in our context can only be realized when knowledge is put to work against those institutions intent on celebrating and protecting partial or mutilated forms of freedom.

The only meaningful academic freedom today would be that freedom found within an academic insurgency against the University in its present operation. Every course engaged in critical knowledge production should take as its object of study the University itself, and its complicity within the current social and ecological crises. The supposed neutrality of the University, its image as insulated from the power of the economy or politics, needs to be unmasked. Both inside and outside its walls, the University is an institution for the reproduction of class relations and the unceasing destruction of the commons. Any other understanding of it arises from the self-deception of the privileged and the PR of administrators. It is therefore just as much the proper target of the struggles through which freedom, academic or not, can be realized.