Stanley Fish on Academic Freedom

Interested in academic freedom? If so, you should read Stanley Fish's new book, Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution. I hasten to add that you should disagree with much of it, and you probably will. But Fish is often right, in my view, and always interesting, even when he's wrong.

Fish presents five "versions" or "schools" of academic freedom, which form a continuum from professionalism to revolution. Here are the five schools of Fish:

First, the "It's just a job" school. This is Fish's own school, and he happily admits he may be its only member. In this "deflationary view," higher education is not a "holy calling" or even a "vocation." It is "a service that offers knowledge and skills to students." Faculty members are professionals engaged in "the advancement of knowledge" through teaching and research. Academic freedom is the freedom of academic employees to do their academic jobs, nothing more and nothing less.

Second is the "For the common good" school of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which sees higher education as a social institution that serves the common good of a democratic society by providing knowledge and expertise relevant to the solution of social problems. Academic freedom remains limited to academic matters, but the scope of academic responsibility expands beyond the disinterested search for and communication of truth.

Third comes the "Academic exceptionalism or uncommon beings" school, which Fish takes to be a "logical extension" of the second school. Given their special expertise and responsibilities, it is argued, higher education faculty should have correspondingly special rights. This school, for example, provides the basis for legal arguments, rejected by most courts, that higher education faculty should have First Amendment rights beyond those of other public employees.

Fourth is the "Academic freedom as critique" school, which is seen by Fish as a natural next step. If academics are uncommon beings devoted to the public good, their special responsibility is to what ordinary mortals are unable to provide: critical analysis of society and of academic norms themselves. Academic freedom in this view is the protection of dissent, and such dissent need not be limited to some narrow conception of what counts as academic.

From here, "it's only a small step, really no step at all" to the fifth and final school: "Academic freedom as revolution." Academia, in this view, should be committed above all to social justice. Academic freedom is the right of faculty to pursue the just transformation of society and to enlist students in that cause. At this point, argues Fish, the original concern with the professional advancement of knowledge has utterly given way to politics. The freedom claimed is no longer academic at all.

I agree with Fish that the academic freedom of university faculty is both justified and limited by the nature of academic work, which requires freedoms that are specifically academic. But I would go beyond Fish in at least four ways.

First, students are also engaged in academic work and need the freedom to do so no less than faculty. Academic freedom should be construed to protect the intellectual freedom of students as they engage in learning and inquiry.

Second, it is not just in higher education that faculty and students need the freedom to engage in teaching, learning, and inquiry. Academic freedom is crucial at all levels of education. The inclusion of elementary and secondary teachers and students may undermine the exceptionalist notion that academic freedom is the special right of a small class of uncommon beings but it fits well with the first two schools of academic freedom.

Third, it seems to me legitimate for the people of a state to create a university intended to serve the common good or for a college to decide to serve its community. Educational institutions must be uncompromising in the pursuit of truth, but this is fully consistent with a commitment to seek and teach the truth about matters of social importance and, in some cases, to act on the resulting knowledge.

Finally, even if academic work is less than revolutionary, I think it is more than "just a job." Even if academic freedom protects nothing more than academic work, it protects the pursuit of truth and the legitimacy of the curriculum. Academics need academic freedom for professional reasons but there is no reason to denigrate this as "just" a professional need.

Others will have different disagreements. Regardless of your preferred school of Fish, his book will get you thinking about academic freedom.