- Calendar Update and Final Paper Information
- Sharing Final Paper Ideas
- Giroux and Academic Freedom
Giroux and Academic Freedom
In preparation for today’s class, I asked you to prepare papers that outline a potential research project. It is in that spirit that I approach writing this lecture on Giroux’s chapter “On the Urgency for Public Intellectuals in the Academy.” I want to pick up and provide evidence for some of Giroux’s arguments, to attempt to introduce you to the notion, history, and importance of academic freedom, to and point to some troubling and/or complicating incidents concerning academic freedom today in America.
First, a brief word on my conflicted relation to Giroux. As an undergraduate I majored in English and minored in Education. I attended Clark University, a school that works really hard to emphasize the liberal in the liberal arts. Giroux’s work of liberating pedagogy (inspired by Freire) and cultural studies held a powerful place in the education program’s curriculum. Furthermore, I would argue that the spirit of Giroux’s work dominated the mission of the entire University:
Clark’s academic community has long been distinguished by the pursuit of scientific inquiry and humanistic studies, enlivened by a concern for significant social issues. Among many other scholarly endeavors, Clark contributes to understanding human development, assessing relationships between people and the environment, and managing risk in a technological society.
Part of that education–and the graduate study that followed it–stressed both research and scholarship in terms of evidence. And this is where I often find reading Giroux’s more recent work frustrating. Giroux is fond of making some pretty sweeping claims and generalizations. He rarely supplies evidence to support these generalizations, anticipating head-nodding agreement on the part of his readers. The only claim in last night’s reading that receives sufficient evidence is the one regarding income equality (see pages 132-135). But many of his characterizations of education are left at the level of claim. For instance, he makes the following two claims:
Tied largely to instrumental ideologies and measurable paradigms, many institutions of higher education are now committed almost exclusively to economic goals, such as preparing students for the workforce and transforming faculty into an army of temporary subaltern labor–all done as a part of an appeal to rationality, one that eschews matters of inequality, power, and ethical grammars of suffering. Universities have not only strayed from their democratic mission, they also seem immune to the plight of students who have to face a harsh new world of high unemployment, the prospect of downward mobility, debilitating debt, and a future that mimics the failures of the past. The question of what kind of education for students to be informed and active citizens is rarely asked. (136)
Questions regarding how education might enable students to develop a keen sense of prophetic justice, utilize critical analytical skills, and cultivate an ethical sensibility through which they learn to respect the rights of others are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a market-driven and militarized university. As the humanities and liberal arts are downsized, privatized, and commodified, higher education finds itself caught in the paradox of claiming to invest in the future of young people while offering them few intellectual, civic, and moral supports. (139)
I admit that I take a bit of offense to this statement, and I would like to see Giroux provide some evidence to support his claims (not because I think he is wrong, but because I think he is right). Let me try to explain these two different reactions.
First, I take some measure of offense because for nearly the last decade I have taught Professional Writing. While often housed in English departments, Professional Writing programs are often viewed skeptically as part of the corporate machine and therefore not a “real” humanity, merely a vocational or service course. This is piled on to a general, historically traceable tension in English departments between literature faculty and writing faculty, in which the latter were often seen as intellectual inferiors and/or a necessary evil (see Ong, Berlin). I admit that I am a bit sensitive here on this issue–and that Giroux’s invocation of vocationalism as pejorative just rubs me the wrong way. I would like to think that while I teach a number of courses that primarily aim to help students find jobs, I also infuse those courses with an ethico-rhetorical approach that orients them towards others in hospitable, constructive ways and engenders them to conceptualize themselves as one node in a larger network of ecological relations which must be maintained in order to sustain their own existence (there is no I without a we without an/other them etc etc).
Putting that aside (or, at least, trying to), I share Giroux’s concern that economic and political interests are actively interrupting the University’s mission to explore society and its problems. To understand this concern requires some familiarity with the concept and history of academic freedom. Early this semester, while we were reading Kant, I shared part of an essay I wrote on Kant and academic freedom. That essay worked through contemporary sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour’s call for academics to re-enter the public sphere and contribute to political deliberations. This, I argued, betrayed one of the implicit precepts upon which the University was built. The contemporary University follows the plan laid out by Immanuel Kant in the late 18th and early 19th century. Kant negotiated with the then king of Prussia to allow University faculty to have the freedom to read, write, and argue whatever they wished, so long as they agreed to allow a “higher” faculty to determine which of their findings should be passed on to the public or used to shape government policy. I do not highlight this because I think Kant was right and that this is the way it should be. Rather, I simply call attention to the fact that the origins of what we call “academic freedom” are caught up in notions of intellectual suppression and public filtering. As I noted, what allowed Kant to propose this bargain was the fact that most of the Prussian public was illiterate–therefore there was a technological issue helping to enforce and maintain the government’s control over scholarly information.
Of course, Kant’s bargain doesn’t translate directly to American Universities. Early 20th century America (when our Universities began to grow in size, power, and reputation) is quite different than early 19th century Prussia/Germany. Perhaps most notable is that America never had a centralized state religion that (attempted to) regulate speech and thought. America has, of course, freedom of speech. But let’s not misrepresent freedom of speech. Freedom of speech means that you have the freedom to speak in public without fear of imprisonment. It does not mean that you have the freedom to speak without fear of (private) consequence. As we see from time to time, you can still get fired for saying something that your employer (or, your employer after measuring public reaction) believes is out of bounds.
But I fear I begin to stray too far from my purpose today (as first drafts are want to do). I want to focus on the implicit separation of state and school–an understanding of academic freedom as a scholar and teacher’s authority to determine their course of research or course of study without interruption or critique from outside agencies. In higher education, this freedom is earned through the tenure process–a scholar is given a period of six years to research, write, and publish; after which time her work is evaluated by peers in her field. Those peers then make a recommendation as to whether the scholar has produced work worthy of the increased rewards and protections of tenure. Once tenured, a scholar has complete freedom to research, write, and publish whatever she choose without fear of reprisal. How else can scholars be free to investigate–and if need be condemn–their own society? Or to push for answers to questions that make most people uncomfortable?
This brings me back to Giroux. In his third chapter, Giroux notes how corporate transformations to University funding and power structures are creating a generation of gated intellectuals. There is, in a sense, two meanings of this. The first we can trace back to Academically Adrift: the idea that Universities are increasingly basing tenure decisions on higher numbers of research publications. The modern, disciplinary structure of the University has contributed to more arcane and intricate forms of research (since faculty write for an audience of fellow faculty in their own specialized fields–increased specialization leads to increasingly focused scholarship that becomes more impenetrable to the outsider). So, one way in which intellectuals are “gated” is by their own narrow, disciplinary norms.
But, in researching my article on Latour, Kant and academic freedom, I was surprised to learn how other gates were being imposed upon faculty. Perhaps the gates metaphor won’t hold here–it isn’t so much that faculty are being “kept in” as external agents (politicians) are intruding upon areas that were previously marked as faculty’s sovereign territory.
The first thing I turned up in my research lines up almost too perfectly with Giroux’s argument that contemporary neoliberal forces oppose critical pedagogies; that is the 2012 Texas Republican Party Platform’s direct objection to teaching critical thinking, a practice they see as “challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” The Lone Star state has inordinate influence over education in the United States as textbook publishers, in pursuit of the state’s tremendous market share, often tailor their nationally-distributed materials in response to Texas’ curricular guidelines. And as Gail Collins (2012) explained, curricular changes approved in Texas in March of 2010 are particularly troubling. These approved changes include minimizing the historic importance of Thomas Jefferson and rejecting the first amendment’s separation of church and state (Collins, 2012). Other changes included minimizing discussions of slavery and segregation, including completely erasing mention of the Klu Klux Klan, and valorizing the McCarthy trials of the 1950’s. Beyond the accuracy of these appalling changes, what should concern academics is who is making them: “There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings” (McKinley, 2010). Two hundred plus year later, Kant’s lower faculty is no longer consulted; the curriculum was authorized by the Texas State Board of Education, a 15 member panel of elected officials, and every vote on every amendment followed straight party lines (10 republicans, 5 democrats–most of whom had no educational experience).
Colorado went through a similar experience in 2014, as the Jefferson county schoolboard found itself in controversy over changes to the College Board’s AP history exam. The Washington Post reports:
Here in Jefferson County, controversy over the new AP standards boiled over in recent weeks after the school board’s recently elected conservative majority pushed back at the College Board. The school board plans to set up a new committee to review the curriculum with the goal of assuring that courses — in the words of board member Julie Williams — “present positive aspects of the United States and its heritage” and “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system.”
Kara Johnson of Arvada, who has three children in Jefferson County schools and who majored in history in college, said she was concerned that the new curriculum was “reviewed by college professors, and college professors are, by and large, on the left. . . . American exceptionalism is something our kids need to believe in, and that exceptionalism is absent from this new framework.”
Ms. Johnson is correct, of course, that the new curriculum was written and reviewed by college professors and that college professors are by and large liberals. But they are also virtually unanimous in their belief that American exceptionalism is an ideological construct invented to justify unethical expansion, subjugation, and exploitation. That finding is the result of years of scholarship. Let me stay focused. My point here is that challenges from outside of faculty expertise and research end up suppressing faculty research. In the case of Colorado, while the AP initially defended the integrity of its work, it eventually caved and rewrote the curriculum, including American Exceptionalism as a core topic and removing language overtly critical of white American actions. Reflecting on the changes, high school student Addie Glickson wrote in the Colorado Independent:
I am a senior at Denver East High School, and a student in the first class to be taught the new AP United States History curriculum. My school has required me to buy the revised $30 edition of the textbook, and teachers have had to plan new lessons that teach the updated curriculum. What I learn this year likely will differ from what my peers – many of whom took the class as juniors – learned last year.
Whereas students who took the class last year learned about the World War II-era atomic bomb, I’ll learn about the war with greater emphasis on America’s fight for global freedom – a side of history that’s much more pleasant than Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which had combined death tolls exceeding 200,000.
Whereas students learned last year that Manifest Destiny – the belief that it was Anglo-Saxon America’s providential right to expand westward – was built on a belief in American cultural superiority, I’ll be taught that it was mainly a matter of natural resources.
And rather than learning that the Cold War ended due to multilateral diplomacy and “significant arms reductions [on both sides],” I’ll be taught that the war ended thanks to “Reagan’s diplomatic initiatives” – an assessment that recognizes only American efforts.
The newly revised course will emphasize American military victories, encourage “national identity” and endorse free enterprise. What’s more, the term “slavery” is used significantly less in the revised class reading than in the old text.
Opponents of these revisions claim that the changes intend to erase negative moments from American history – and, to some, this erasure amounts to full-on censorship.
Again, my point concerns the credentials of the revisions’ opponents, and would highlight that they are not the people with advanced degrees in history. The insistence upon (neoliberally aligned) American exceptionalism in Colorado, the opposition to critical thinking in Texas–it is hard to read of these things and not see them of evidence of Giroux’s claim that “we live in a world in which the politics of dis-imagination dominates, such that any writing or public discourse that bears witness to a critical and alternative sense of the world [or our history] is dismissed” (141). There is evidence to suggest an active movement to ask the kinds of questions, to face the kinds of facts, that force us to question our relations, motivations, and selves.
I would highlight, however, that the examples above come not from Universities as much as from secondary schools. But, as I argued in my article on Latour and Kant, it would be a mistake to think that these movements will not encroach upon higher education as well. Giroux makes the claim in 2012 that they already are. To support his claim, I would turn attention to a few events. Taken individually, they might seem innocent enough. But when looked at collectively, they reinforce Giroux’s assertion that neoliberal forces are at work to squelch a critical, creative social imagination. First, there is Mitch Daniels’ (former governor of Indiana and current president of Purdue University) “Open letter to the people of Purdue,” in which Daniels condemned professors for “spending too much time ‘writing papers for each other,’ researching abstruse topics of no real utility and no real incremental contribution to human knowledge or understanding” (n.p.). One might argue that Daniels echoes Latour’s insistence on academics returning to public spheres and/or Giroux’s argument that academics have “gated” themselves. But this is likely an overly charitable interpretation. More likely, his letter is just another condemnation of the humanities, be it more subtle and implicit. This reading seems more likely if we put it into conversation with Rick Scott’s, governor of Florida, statements on the usefulness of humanities majors.
While President Daniel’s subtly avoided naming names, leaving readers to infer which disciplines he found irrelevant, Governor Scott took an even less subtle approach than the Texans. Governor Scott told radio host Marc Benier:
We don’t need a lot more anthropologists in the state. It’s a great degree if people want to get it, but we don’t need them here. I want to spend our dollars giving people science, technology, engineering, and math degrees. That’s what our kids need to focus all their time and attention on, those types of degrees, so when they get out of school, they can get a job. (Lende) (emphasis added)
In December 2012, Governor Scott further marginalized the humanities when he announced his plan to steer college students towards STEM disciplines by freezing tuition for “job-friendly” majors like engineering (Travis, 2012). Those disciplines that emphasize critical thinking and provide no “real” benefit to human knowledge would become more expensive. It’s a counterintuitive move given the lower projected incomes for those students majoring in history, psychology, and so on. But counterintuitive moves seem to be the order of the day when it comes to Florida, the state legislature, and the university system (more on that later).
Governor Scott has also proposed a “10k bachelor’s degree challenge,” a move that feeds STEM education initiatives, again at the expense of the humanities. On its surface, Governor Scott’s proposal reads like an egalitarian one. A similar initiative has led to the Texas Science Scholar Program (2012). This program targets top high school juniors, through dual enrollment that ensures little, if any, exposure to humanities classes (Hamilton, 2012) and requires students to major in Chemistry, Computer Science, Geology, Information Systems, or Mathematics. Only the very best students are eligible to participate, though, so the cheapest degree may be out of reach for those who need it most (Seligman, 2012; Hamilton, 2012). But, again, I would stress that designing these kinds of “cost efficient” degree programs often requires severely reducing, if not entirely eliminating, the liberal arts and/or general education requirements.
Finally, I would turn to the recent events in Wisconsin under staunch conservative and neoliberal governor Scott Walker as my final evidence to support Giroux’s claim. In May of 2015, Wisconsin’s state legislature’s Joint Finance Committee voted to eliminate tenure and shared governance (the latter is a complicated term, but essentially marks off how a faculty has an earnest role in determining the shape and assessment of their programs). Giroux makes the claim above that universities are turning faculty into “subaltern labor” (136) and I scoffed a bit at the hyperbole. But deteriorating faculty governance does reduce the extent to which faculty expertise informs university policy and programs. Compelled to institute the law, the chair of the U of W Madison board of regents invokes the kind of neoliberal language that draws Giroux’s ire:
“I do not believe the academy is precisely like a business,” Regina Millner, board president, said at the meeting. “But we cannot have quality, serve our students, have quality faculty if we do not have a sound financial system. This is a different century, this is a different time …. We need to protect that quality by making certain critical decisions.”
Repeatedly during the meeting, Millner and other regents cited the need, in an era of tight budgets, for “flexibility” to close programs — and eliminate faculty jobs in the process. The votes here marked the near-end of two years of debate over a tenure policy that saw the university system’s tenured faculty go from having among the strongest protections in the nation (written into state law) to having a system that many professors fear will make it too easy to dismiss them and eliminate programs they believe should be preserved.
One has to wonder how long before changes in tenure policy make acts of critique into acts of rebellion into critical decision regarding financial flexibility.
Of course, sometimes in an argument one can be lucky enough to have an opponent who is incompetent, and says the stupid thing you *think* but can’t necessarily prove he believes. In this case, as way of conclusion, I turn to Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.
“If you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better off popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns’s Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done?” Johnson said. “You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.”
Johnson also criticized what he called the “higher education cartel” and said he wanted to know why, if “we’ve got the internet,” there need to be different instructors to teach the same subjects in the first place.
Let’s not even begin to discuss the merits of such a proposition. Ok, let’s, for maybe a minute: everything we know about education suggests that learning is not only a process, but a struggle. Learning requires someone push past their limitations. Such a heroic feat on the parts of students require support, acknowledgement (and sometimes a good hard push) by another human being who can respond to stress, progress, and inertia in a meaningful way.
But, since I have only minutes until class, I rush to a conclusion. Recently Besty DeVos criticized university faculty, arguing that they were indoctrinating students into leftist political orientations. I believe that Vos’ accusation, and Johnson’s representation of the ideal classroom, both come from a perception of education purely as transmission–DeVos cannot imagine an education that does anything but impose values upon a student; Johnson cannot imagine an education as anything but a transfer of information. Both perspectives elide the kinds of imaginative, creative, enabling educations we have explored thus far this semester: an approach to education that seeks to present how to ask a question more than it aims to provide an answer.