Academic Freedom Redefined Again

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

Maybe one of the reasons that we have never-ending battles over academic freedom is that many academics seem to define it differently.

“Academic freedom means that if I think that there may be an intellectual payoff to be had by turning an academic lens on material others consider trivial — golf tees, gourmet coffee, lingerie ads, convenience stores, street names, whatever — I should get a chance to try,” veteran professor Stanley Fish recently wrote in The New York Times. “If I manage to demonstrate to my peers and students that studying this material yields insights into matters of general intellectual interest, there is a new topic under the academic sun and a new subject for classroom discussion.”

“In short, whether something is an appropriate object of academic study is a matter not of its content — a crackpot theory may have had a history of influence that well rewards scholarly scrutiny — but of its availability to serious analysis.”

Currently, Fish is a law professor at Florida Atlantic University. Many of his peers seem to be preemptively following his advice, particularly the “whatever” part.

“Drawn to—if seldom dazzled by—the spectacles, scholars of all ages and disciplines continue to queue up for what is surely the least renumerative franchise with a brand name: Disney Studies,” Thomas Doherty writes in the July 21st Chronicle of Higher Education. “The body of scholarship, whose growth spurts began in the mid-1970s, when legions of Disneyfied baby boomers entered the professoriate, has an interdisciplinary cache that compensates for the paucity of ancillary marketing opportunities.”

“Media Studies scrutinizes the cartoons and feature films; anthropology, sociology, and psychology poke around the theme parks; economics audits the business practices; International Studies tracks the global positioning of colonial outposts and any field left out is welcome to come along and join the jamboree.”

Dr. Doherty, an American Studies professor at Brandeis, wrote the book, Cold War, Cool Medium: Television, McCarthyism and American Culture. Some of the scholarly works he lists from the Disney Studies canon include:

How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic;

Rethinking Disney: Private Control, Public Dimensions; and

Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment.

Meanwhile, over at Georgetown, Medieval Studies professor John Sebastian teaches an arguably more substantive summer course on “Spy Stories.” “The course began with W. Somerset Maugham’s work ‘R,’ from his 1928 short-story collection Ashenden, and was followed by Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, the story of a socially invisible Indian recruit during English rule,” David Pepose writes in The Washington Times. “The class then read double-agent Kim Philby’s autobiographical novel My Silent War, before moving along to Ian Fleming’s seminal and, according to Mr. Sebastian, “most psychological” James Bond novel, Casino Royale.”

“The class also took a field trip to the International Spy Museum, as well as to Georgetown’s Lauinger Memorial Library, which houses works such as the Russell J. Bowen Collection on Intelligence, Security and Covert Activities and the Bowen Spy Fiction Collection.”

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to talk to Peter Nazareth at the University of Iowa. He teaches a class called Elvis as Anthology that has made the Young America’s Foundation list of most ridiculous courses. To be sure, you will not learn much about the origin of the rights of man or even standard written English in the lectures but the course avoids the demonizing of western civilization in academia today and students get to listen to some great music.

But what of the accuracy of the courses students can use what academic freedom that they do have to take? An e-mail I got recently from a self-styled conservative at Dartmouth serves to illustrate the epidemic of inaccuracy in the Ivory Tower today.

“In light of your argument and your organization, I question the broader premise of ‘accuracy,’ and accuracy’s place in academia,” he wrote. “Academia is about the production of questions.”

“The idea of accuracy (essentially, the type of essentialism that populates C.S. Lewis’ texts) is almost incomprehensible within the academic fields of the humanities and the theoretical end of the social sciences. Accuracy implies a fixed referent, and humanities scholarship cannot afford fixed referents and essentialisms.”

“Perhaps ‘accuracy’ at your University of Scranton constituted positions in relation to Western culture and metaphysics, or somesuch contrived referent; but scholarly work in these fields relies on a different kind of axiology that is part and parcel to the fields themselves, and the idea of scholarly INQUIRY as opposed to totalization or determinism.”

But how meaningful is inquiry when it is answered inaccurately?

Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.