[Paleopsych] Inside Higher Ed: Academic Freedom, Then and Now
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Academic Freedom, Then and Now
2005 Feb. 17
By 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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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.
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.
Scott McLemee, columnist at Inside Higher Ed, at 1:23 pm EST on
February 27, 2005
18. mailto:scott.mclemee at insidehighered.com
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