[From the Archives] The Obligations of Academic Freedom

Timothy Burke’s “The Obligations of Academic Freedom” first appeared in Issue 67 of the minnesota review.

Many academics, including myself, rise to defend “academic freedom” in response to claims that professoriate is too “liberal.” The concept of “academic freedom,” however, seems to mean many things to many people, and there is often a lack of appreciation about why it is necessary and what it ought to entail.

Conservative critics currently argue that American academics in the humanities and social sciences are dedicated to a model of pedagogy as indoctrination. I think the critics exaggerate how widespread that viewpoint is, but they have a point, namely, the extent to which a loose and implicit application of the work of Antonio Gramsci and Michel Foucault has influenced the intellectual outlook of many academics, especially in the humanities. Loosely Gramscian ideas of political struggle helped to turn the attention of many American intellectuals to civic and cultural institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, believing such institutions could be used to transform language, consciousness, and everyday practice in pursuit of social transformation. Gramsci’s view of politics as a “war of position” over the content of common sense, or ordinary truth (and thus of the everyday consciousness of most people), seemed to many intellectuals to be more readily available in the 1980s than mass parties or mass action. Moreover, there seemed to be a distinctive and familiar role for intellectuals to play in such wars of position, as expert, critic, political vanguard, and avant-garde savant.

This view combined readily with Michel Foucault’s argument that knowledge produced through and within institutions was a source of social power, and with his emphasis on the role of discourse. Many academics, including those who had no particular brief for left-wing politics, accepted these ideas and believed that an academic was always and inevitably “political” in his or her professional work.

An emphasis on the interrelationship of speech, institutional life, mass culture, and consciousness also functioned as an alibi that could help to explain the gap between intellectual sensibilities and mass sensibilities. On those occasions when academic intellectuals on the left took their own point-of-view on political or social issues as obviously virtuous but uncomfortably noted that there was considerable evidence that large national or regional pluralities or majorities did not share these views, they could attribute the gap to the controlling power of mass culture or key social institutions, including the university. This made the work of politics into the transformation of social institutions and cultural life, and it explained cases of political failure or shortfall by viewing those institutions as being as-yet insufficiently transformed or still captive to hegemony.

One of the almost-funny ironies of the debate about academic politicization is that this entire composite posture is now far more characteristic of the conservative critics than it is of the allegedly leftleaning professoriate. Many of those on the cultural right now beating the war-drums against academia believe, explicitly or implicitly, that social institutions directly reproduce forms of consciousness and create socially powerful forms of “truth.” They call for the same exemption that some left-wing intellectuals called upon in the 1980s and 1990s, believing that the only people who are not a product of such indoctrination are their own constituencies and organizations. For many conservative critics, “the wisdom of crowds” is wise if it matches their own agenda. When it does not, it is the product of the liberal media, of left-wing professors, of the sociological domination of “blue-state” elites, or some other intervening force.

Timothy Burke is the author of Lifebuoy Men, Lux Women: Commodification, Consumption and Cleanliness in Modern Zimbabwe (Duke, 1996) and co-author of Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up With Cartoon Culture (with Kevin Burke, St. Martin’s, 1999). He is a professor in the Department of History at Swarthmore College, and you can find more information about his work at his blog. For more of this article, visit our online archives. You do not need a subscription to read the full article.

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