[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Academic Freedom, Then and Now

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Academic Freedom, Then and Now
2005 Feb. 17

    By [18]Scott McLemee

    This year marks the 50th anniversary of The Development of Academic
    Freedom in the United States by Richard Hofstadter and Walter P.
    Metzger, published by Columbia University Press. It has long been out
    of print. But circumstances have had the unfortunate effect of making
    it timely again. Locating a copy is worth the trouble, and once you
    do, the book proves just about impossible to put down.
    Intellectual Affairs

    For one thing, reading it is a relief from the mingled stridencies of
    l'affaire Ward Churchill and of David Horowitz's latest stunt, the
    so-called "Academic Bill of Rights." (By the way, is it just me, or
    don't their media performances suggest that Churchill and Horowitz are
    identical twins whom ideology has separated at birth? Both have
    glint-eyed zealotry down pat.)

    At the same time, the book is a reminder of how incredibly prolonged,
    complicated, and perilous the emergence of academic freedom has been.
    The book was commissioned in 1951 by the American Academic Freedom
    Project, which had a panel of advisers from numerous distinguished
    universities and seminaries (plus one from the Detroit Public
    Library), and it was published alongside a companion volume, Academic
    Freedom in Our Time, by the director of the project, R. M. MacIver, an
    emeritus professor of political philosophy and sociology at Columbia

    It was, in brief, the closest thing to an official scholarly response
    to the danger of McCarthyism from the university world. The authors
    must have finished correcting proofs for the book around the time
    Joseph McCarthy lost his committee chairmanship and was censured by
    his colleagues in the Senate. The darkness of the time is particularly
    evident in MacIver's volume, with its conclusion that "the weight of
    authority in the United States is now adverse to the principle of
    intellectual freedom."

    Hofstadter and Metzger, by contrast, make only a few direct references
    to the then-recent challenges to academic freedom. Senator McCarthy's
    name never appears in the book. Hofstadter traces the history of
    American academic life up to the Civil War, and Metzger continues it
    through the early 20th century -- a panoramic survey recounting scores
    of controversies, firings, and pamphlets wars. But recording only "the
    outstanding violations of freedom" would mean reducing history to
    "nothing but the story of academic suppression."

    Condensing 500 pages into five paragraphs is a fool's errand, but here
    goes anyway.

    The belief that only the community of scholars has the final authority
    to determine what counts as valid research or permissible speech has
    deep roots in the history of the university, going all the way back to
    its origins in medieval Europe. But it was extremely slow to develop
    in colonial and antebellum America, which had few institutions of
    higher learning that were anything but outgrowths of religious

    In 1856, George Templeton Strong suggested to his fellow trustees of
    what was then Columbia College that the only way to create a great
    university was "to employ professors of great repute and ability to
    teach" and "confiding everything, at the outset, to the control of the
    teachers." It was an anomalous idea -- one that rested, Hofstadter
    indicates, on the idea that scholarship might confer social prestige
    to those who practice it.

    As the later chapters by Walter Metzger argue, it was only with the
    rapid increase in endowments (and the growing economic role of
    scientific research and advanced training) that academics began to
    have the social status necessary to make strong claims for their own
    autonomy as professionals.

    At least some of what followed sounds curiously familiar. "Between
    1890 and 1900," writes Metzger, "the number of college and university
    teachers in the United States increased by fully 90 percent. Though
    the academic market continually expanded, a point of saturation, at
    least in the more attractive university positions, was close to being
    reached.... Under these competitive conditions, the demand for
    academic tenure became urgent, and those who urged it became
    vociferous." It was the academic equivalent of the demand for
    civil-service examinations in government employment and for rules of
    seniority in other jobs.

    Academic freedom was not so much the goal for the creation of tenure
    as one of its desirable side effects. The establishment of the
    American Association of University Professors in 1915 "was the
    culmination of tendencies toward professorial self-consciousness that
    had been operating for many decades." And it was the beginning of the
    codification of rules ensuring at least some degree of security
    (however often honored only in the breach) for those with unpopular

    Speaking of unpopular opinions, I must admit to feeling some
    uneasiness in recommending The Development of Academic Freedom in the
    United States to you.

    It is a commonplace today that Richard Hofstadter was a Cold War
    liberal -- and a certain smug knowingness about the limitations and
    failures of Cold War liberalism is the birthright of every
    contemporary academic, of whatever ideological coloration.
    Furthermore, Hofstadter stands accused of indulging in "the consensus
    view of history," which sees the American political tradition as
    endorsing (as one scholar puts it) "the rights of property, the
    philosophies of economic individualism, [and] the value of

    I don't know anything about Walter Metzger, but he seems to share much
    of Hofstadter's outlook. So it is safe to dismiss their book as a mere
    happy pill designed to induce the unthinking celebration of the
    American way of life. No one will think the worse of you for this.
    Besides, we're all so busy nowadays.

    But if you do venture to read The Development of Academic Freedom, you
    might find its analysis considerably more combative than it might at
    first appear. Its claim is not that academic freedom is a deeply
    rooted part of our glorious American heritage of nearly perfect
    liberty. The whole logic of its argument runs very much to the

    Someone once said that the most impressive thing about Hofstadter's
    Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) was that he managed to
    keep it to just one volume. The deepest implication of his work is
    that academic freedom does not, in fact, have very deep roots even in
    the history of American higher education -- let alone in the wider

    On the final page of The Development of Academic Freedom in the United
    States, his collaborator writes, "One cannot but be but be appalled at
    the slender thread by which it hangs.... one cannot but be
    disheartened by the cowardice and self-deception that frail men use
    who want to be both safe and free." It is a book worth re-reading now
    -- not as a celebration, but as a warning.

    Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs on Tuesdays and Thursdays.


On academci freedom

    Interesting that this article appears in the same issue with an
    article about the flap over Summer of Harvard. He expressed an opinion
    -- in a very liberal way, I might add -- and his professors, like so
    many others today, went for his throat. No one seems to care whether
    or not his opinion is correct -- it is assumed incorrect, without any
    research, because it is not "politically correct". Whether correct or
    not, it is obvious that he does not have the freedom to make such a
    comment on his campus.

    I am currently writing a biography of George R. Stewart, who wrote The
    Year of the Oath. At the end of his life, Stewart was very concerned
    about the new threats to academic freedom that were coming from the
    politically-correct and "diversity" parts of the nation. The situation
    at Harvard seems to prove his concern.

    I mean, readers, what if women DON'T have the aptitude for science and
    math? Is this not a question of evidence and fact? And what ARE the
    effects on academic quality of hiring and promoting the
    less-well-qualified in the sacred name of diversity or equity?

    Did I not just push some buttons with that question? And are not some
    of you ready to go for my throat? But if you take away my freedom to
    discuss such questions, you take away the underpinnings of higher

    DM Scott

    Donald M. Scott, Independent Scholar, at 1:24 pm EST on February 18,

Freedom and the Community of Scholars

    Since Summers himself has now admitted that he spoke without having
    expertise on the question of women in science, it is best to admit
    that the scientific data on the question does not support his
    speculations. His critics, far from being obstreperous or "politically
    correct," were providing a necessary corrective of error.

    In any event, the responsibility of institutional leadership lend a
    special character to comments by presidents like Summers. At stake is
    not merely an individual's speech rights but the ability of the
    individual to lead a whole institution forward. Summers's comments
    cast doubt on his ability to ensure that Harvard would remain an
    inviting place for women, particularly in the sciences.

    It is true that academic freedom is in doubt in our own time, but the
    threat is the thunder on the political right calling for increased
    state oversight of universites. Encouraged by the rabid commentaries
    of Ann Coulter and the unfair and imbalanced Fox News, this trend
    includes Ohio's dreadful Senate Bill 24 (cribbed from David Horowitz)
    and the present campaign to have the state of Colorado to fire Ward
    Churchill for making irresponsible and asinine remarks about the
    victims of 9/11 (along with some more perceptive ones about U.S.
    foreign policy).

    Academic freedom depends upon a community of scholars who by the
    process of tenure have proven themselves professionally competent and
    who after tenure are willing to subject themselves to ruthless
    criticism from other scholars in the pursuit of truth, a process that
    must remain free from intrusive external interference by state and
    society. This is why the Summers case is an example of universities at
    their self-corrective best, while the Churchill case is a portent of
    the ongoing precariousness of academic freedom in our times.

    Christopher Phelps, Associate Professor at The Ohio State University,
    at 5:29 am EST on February 19, 2005

Revisiting Hofstadter

    The time is ripe to abandon our smug dismissal of Hofstadter and look
    at the real significance of his work on intellectual life, culture and
    history in this country. I'm glad his work is being revisited and that
    I am not alone in doing so.

    I don't think that criticizing Larry Summers amounts to censoring him
    in the name of the mythic powers of "political correctness." There is
    in fact a new "political correctness" and it has to do with kissing
    the buts of those in power. Those who genuflect before the Republican
    agenda are outraged that not all of us choose to do so.

    Catherine Liu, Visiting Associate Professor at Fulbright in Taiwan, at
    8:50 am EST on February 20, 2005

Phelps's comment

    Having read Summer's remarks at the "diversity" conference, in full,
    it is apparent that Christopher Phelps has not. Not only did Summers
    qualify his remarks with several caveats and qualifiers, to wit: he
    was trying to be provocative; he may be wrong; he thought more studies
    were called for; he was suggesting the possibility of alternative
    reasons for absence of women at highest levels of science than those
    offered by groupthink; and he was all for finding ways to level the
    playing field for minorities, but he congratulated the organizers of
    the conference for their efforts in making this dialogue possible. Now
    I ask all scholars, tenured or not, what more can a leader do than
    raise questions for inquiry and stimulate interest by offering a few
    hypothesis? For this effort he is pilloried by the politically correct
    crowd, the feminist in particular, and the 250 faculty members of
    Harvard who don't like Summers because he has been questioning their
    work ethic and other aspects of their comfy, cushy and isolated club.

    tom sargent, at 3:14 pm EST on February 20, 2005

    McCarthy was a bit of a demagogue, but on the fundamental political
    question -- was communism dangerous, had it infiltrated the Roosevelt
    administration and certain other sectors, including universities --
    McCarthy was right and his critics were wrong.

    Hofstadter's book was overrated then, and is overrated now, not
    because he was a "Cold War liberal" (i.e., a liberal who understood
    something about the dangers of communism, but because of his smug
    self-assurance about the superiority of "intellectualism." He was a
    sort of premature blue-stater.

    Is there an "academic" freedom different from "freedom." I question
    that. Is it a pretty phrase to cover privilege for those who don't
    necessarily deserve it, while others (TA's, the mobile part-time,
    temporary proletariat) do the important work? Possibly?

    Are American universities today free, or are they captives of the
    Diversity Industry and the left? There is a lot of truth in the dimmer

    [19]Grumpy Old Man, at 4:34 am EST on February 21, 2005

    I not only read the transcription of Summers's comments, I read his
    attached expression of regret for having shot from the hip--in effect
    a retraction. Did Sargent read that?

    Christopher Phelps, Department of History at The Ohio State
    University, at 4:34 am EST on February 21, 2005

Censorship's swing, left and right

    As a professor of college English for nearly forty years, now censored
    (I have been suspended seven times in the past six years for alleged
    speech and thought crimes), I am forced to acknowledge how fragile
    "academic freedom" is. The federal judges who ruled in my case decided
    that college students are a "captive" audience whose need never to be
    offended -- even when the "offense" is inadvertent and wholly
    subjective -- trumps any teacher's "right" to speak: "While a
    professor's rights to academic freedom and freedom of expession are
    paramount in the academic setting, they are not absolute to the point
    of compromising a student's right to learn in a hostile-free
    environment." BONNELL V LORENZO, 2001, 6TH CIRCUIT; U.S. Sup. Crt,
    cert. denied.

    Such a conclusion, arrived at via contorted "logic," misapplication of
    irrelevant law, and thinly disguised dishonesty, had its path prepared
    by the "lefteous" who believe the new civil right to censor must
    overwhelm the older civil liberty to speak. But now the "righteous"
    will seize the initiative and perfect instruments of repression that
    will not only silence the PC lefties but leave them dazzled by a
    viciousness they could only dream of.

    John Bonnell, Professor at Macomb Comm. College, at 4:25 pm EST on
    February 21, 2005

Separated at birth

    By the way, is it just me, or don't their media performances suggest
    that Churchill and Horowitz are identical twins whom ideology has
    separated at birth?

    Not quite at birth; they were brothers of the same mind until about
    the mid 1970s, when Horowitz suddenly realised that being a hardline
    Maoist and wannabe-in-chief to the late-era Black Panthers wasn't the
    way to a secure retirement.

    [20]dsquared, at 8:00 am EST on February 23, 2005

fun with history

    Thanks, but the structure of my comment on Horowitz and Churchill was
    more a product of wanting to use that expression "separated at birth"
    than of ignorance of Horowitz's ideological career. In this case, at
    least, "career" is a matter of using the precise word.

    Back in the late 1940s, Max Shachtman (himself a man of the
    anti-totalitarian left) said of certain feverishly ex-Communist
    breast-beaters that their writings boiled down to saying "once I was
    so stupid, now I am so smart." But they were otherwise just as
    arrogant, malevolent, and intellectually dishonest as ever. For some
    reason, that historical footnote has been coming to mind a lot lately.

    [21]Scott McLemee, columnist at Inside Higher Ed, at 1:23 pm EST on
    February 27, 2005


   18. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
   19. http://www.globaloctopus.blogspot.com/
   20. http://www.crookedtimber.org/
   21. http://mclemee.com/

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