[Address to the Annual Convention of the Modern Languages Association, San Francisco, December 29, 2008. It was first published at FrontPage Magazine, on December 30, 2010, here.]
I want to thank Brian Kennelly, the MLA and its gracious president Jerry Graff for inviting me today. It has been five and a half years since I began my campaign for an Academic Bill of Rights and this is the first time any academic institution or professional association has invited me to discuss my agendas. It is not as though these agendas have not been a matter of academic interest. On the contrary, they have been the focus of faculty meetings, the subject of resolutions by professional associations like the MLA, and the inspiration for a statement on academic freedom by the American Council on Education, which represents 1800 colleges and universities.
But this is the first time the instigator of all this concern has been invited to appear before an academic body to defend his views and explain his proposal.
Before publishing the Academic Bill of Rights five years ago, I vetted an early version of the text with three prominent leftwing academics: Todd Gitlin, Michael Berube and Stanley Fish. The published version is the one that met with their approval. I also attempted to solicit the views of the American Association of University Professors but they did not return my emails or phone calls. Instead they launched a scorched earth attack accusing me of McCarthyism, Orwellianism, Stalinism and even Hitlerism. It was clear they did not like me or my bill.
In addition to being unproductive, this reaction was peculiar – first because three prominent leftwing academics had found nothing objectionable in my proposal, and second because the text was clearly, self-consciously, and explicitly drawn from the AAUP’s own classic “Declaration” on the principles of Academic Freedom, which has been the canonical statement for nearly 100 years.
Aside from attempting to codify these principles, I have attempted only one innovation, which is this: If a professor is obligated to behave professionally in a classroom then students have the right to expect their professor to behave professionally.
Teaching professionally means teaching according to scientific method rather than what Charles Pierce called the “method of authority.” The method of authority was employed by instructors when institutions of higher learning were administered by religious denominations. In those days teaching involved the instilling of doctrines and the imposition of orthodoxies, rather than the critical examination of both.
By contrast, the modern research university is based on the idea that orthodoxies need to be confronted by critical opinions and by a weighing of evidence. That is the task of the academic professional. Professionalism in the classroom also means teaching one’s expertise and not one’s uninformed prejudice. Professors of English literature should teach literature, not environmental science or political economy. Third, professionalism means deporting oneself in an academic manner when in a university setting. This means assuming a scholarly distance from religious and political passions.
A succinct summary of these prescriptions, with which I am in complete agreement, has been made in this statement by Stanley Fish: “Any idea can be brought into the classroom if the point is to inquire into its structure, history, influence and so forth. But no idea belongs in the classroom if the point of introducing it is to recruit your students for the political agenda it may be thought to imply.”
When the principles of academic freedom are codified as rights for students, an important and potentially contentious issue arises, which is whether such rights lend themselves to interpretation in a way that infringes on the authority of the instructor in the classroom. Clearly the teaching relationship is (and must be) an unequal one, since it involves the transmission of knowledge from one individual with superior information and acquired expertise to another whose position is that of a novice seeking to gain information and expertise.
Nothing in the Academic Bill of Rights is intended to change or challenge this unequal relationship between teacher and student. Nothing in it is intended to curtail the privilege of faculty to express views and draw conclusions based on their professional experience and expertise. If any language in the Academic Bill of Rights might be interpreted as undermining this relationship, I was — and am — prepared to change it.
Unfortunately, there has been no possibility of discussing or negotiating such changes, because the extreme and unprincipled nature of the attacks on me has made serious discussion of the issues impossible.
Thus, I have been attacked for proposing a bill that seeks to have politicians and legislatures control the curricula of American colleges and universities. This is false. My goal has always been to have the Academic Bill of Rights adopted by university faculties. I have never sponsored any law that would determine what teachers can or cannot teach in a classroom. Nor would I. My goal in approaching legislatures (something I have not done in the last three years by the way) was always, and solely, to get the attention of the academic community, which otherwise would have ignored me. I have succeeded in that.
I have never sponsored a single bill with an enforcement mechanism. Every piece of legislation – and there have only been a handful — has been in the form of a resolution urging universities to observe principles already laid out in the classic statement on academic freedom. When university administrators have asked for the legislation to be withdrawn and expressed a willingness to implement its recommendations – as happened in Colorado and Ohio – we have gladly withdrawn it.