Academic Freedom: It's About Consumer Choice

In the New York Times on Sunday, Stanley Fish reduced academic freedom to consumer choice:

"Academic freedom means that if I think that there may be an intellectual payoff to be had by turning an academic lens on material others consider trivial — golf tees, gourmet coffee, lingerie ads, convenience stores, street names, whatever — I should get a chance to try."

(If you don't have a nytimes account, try bugmenot for a user name and password.)

When I saw the byline--a law professor at Florida International University--I thought this must be some other Stanley Fish, not the author of Is There A Text In This Class? But no, it's the genuine article. He actually claims that academic freedom is 1) about studying gourmet coffee 2) not about having opinions about anything. That one should not be allowed to bring one's political views into the classroom might surprise the professors I had in college who argued, let's say, that capitalism was the best way to develop poor economies; that philosophical ideas should not be considered in their historical context; that Marxist analyses of literature always left something to be desired; that the scientific community accepted Darwinism readily because it was correct. (I survived these notions, by the way.) Any introductory economics in this country class expresses an opinion, implicitly. The choice of the object is itself a value judgment, and how could Fish forget that?

I always thought the justification for tenure was that it freed professors to have and express unpopular opinions. I thought that's what was wrong with McCarthyism.

But I guess if the only freedom we have left in America is to be consumers of the objects of our choice, it would make sense that the only freedom academics should have is to be consumers of admittedly trivial intellectual objects--but of their choice. Because, you know, academic freedom could have meant the freedom to choose objects others don't consider trivial (democracy, sexuality, Guantánamo, Shakespeare). But it's not that. It's just about protecting the right to be a consumer of odds and ends like everybody else. But be sure you don't express any opinions on anything -- not even on those odds and ends! Because to have an opinion is so, you know, uncool. It might expose you to the risk of a discussion or a disagreement--philosophical, historical, or aesthetic. And, gosh, our universities can't handle that.


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