12 Jul 2017

Stanley Fish Says Free Speech is Not an Academic Value

, ,

Stanley Fish takes a cynical, reductionist, and self-interested professorial view of the place of Free Speech with the context of the University.

(The article is behind a paywall at Chronicle of Higher Education, but it was captured and reposted here.)

[In] what might seem to be a paradox, the public university is “absolutely committed to protecting free speech” only when the speech produced is nonacademic. When it is academic speech that is being produced the interest of the employer is paramount and speech is permitted only when it serves that interest.

But isn’t that interest centered on speech because, as the Minnesota faculty put it in their draft recommendations, the university’s “larger normative commitment [is] to the free exchange of ideas”? No, it isn’t. The university’s normative commitment is to freedom of inquiry, which is quite a different thing. The phrase “free exchange of ideas” suggests something like a Hyde Park corner or a town-hall meeting where people take turns offering their opinions on pressing social matters. The right to speak is held by all; no requirements (of rank, intelligence, professional standing, etc.) limit the number of those who have access to the microphone. (Limits of course may attach to time, manner, and place.)

The course of free inquiry in universities is not like that at all. Before one can speak, in a classroom or in the research seminar or in a journal publication, one will have been subjected to any number of vetting procedures
— votes, auditions, presentations — designed largely to determine those who will not be allowed to speak. Whether it is a department, a college, a dean, a provost, a learned-journal editor, it is the business of the university to silence voices, not to license them indifferently. To put it another way, the free exchange of ideas between persons who want in on the conversation is a democratic ideal; but the university is not a democracy; it is (or is supposed to be) a meritocracy, one in which those who get to put their ideas forward are far outnumbered by those who don’t. The process is more Darwinian than democratic.

This leads me to a conclusion implicit in the previous paragraphs: Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these values is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right. The operative commonplace is “following the evidence wherever it leads.” You can’t do that if your sources are suspect or nonexistent; you can’t do that if you only consider evidence favorable to your biases; you can’t do that if your evidence is far afield and hasn’t been persuasively connected to the instant matter of fact.

Nor can you follow the evidence wherever it leads if you are guided by a desire that it reach a conclusion friendly to your political views. If free speech is not an academic value because it is not the value guiding inquiry, free political speech is positively antithetical to inquiry: It skews inquiry in advance; you get where you wanted to get from the get-go. It is political speech if, when the material under consideration raises political/ethical questions, you believe it is your task to answer them, to take them seriously rather than academically. Any number of topics taken up in a classroom will contain moral and political issues, issues like discrimination, inequality, institutional racism. Those issues should be studied, analyzed, and historicized, but they shouldn’t be debated with a view to fashioning and prosecuting a remedial agenda. The academic interrogation of an issue leads to an understanding of its complexity; it does not (or should not) lead to joining a party or marching down Main Street.

That is what I mean by saying that the issue shouldn’t be taken seriously; taking it seriously would require following its paths and byways to the point where one embarks upon a course of action; taking it academically requires that one stop short of action and remain in the realm of deliberation so long as the academic context is in session; action, if it comes, comes later or after class.

So neither free speech — speech uttered by anyone who has something to say — nor political speech — speech intended to nudge students in one direction or the other — is a legitimate part of the academic scene. But both are part of the extracurricular scene: the rallies, workshops, panel discussions, and lectures about which we hear so
much today. In those contexts partisan views are front and center, and they are aired by anyone and everyone in the room or the quad or the auditorium. And these views are being taken seriously. Speakers are not merely reflecting on the alternatives; they are strongly urging the alternatives, sometimes in apocalyptic terms: Unless we divest
from fossil-fuel stocks, the environment will be destroyed; unless we speak out against Israel, a new Nazi-ism will triumph; unless we stand up against microaggressions, racism will run rampant. Passions run high, the stakes
are felt to be enormous, the fate of the republic hangs in the balance.

It’s all so exciting, so exhilarating, so serious. But it is not a seriousness to which the university is a party. My contention that moral/political seriousness has no place in the university holds even in those areas in which moral/political seriousness is being performed to a fare-thee-well; for while that conversation (often very heated) is occurring within university precincts, the university is not actively presiding over it; rather, the university is, or should be, managing it, much as the proprietors of a sports stadium manage the crowds they invite in or as the proprietors of a Broadway theater manage the audiences they labor to attract. It’s show business! The university lets this stuff go on, but it doesn’t have a dog in the hunt; it neither affirms nor repudiates any
of the positions that vie for attention in the circus it allows on its grounds; it doesn’t take those positions seriously, and it shouldn’t, for if it did so (by divesting from fossil fuels or policing microaggressions or declaring the entire campus a free-speech zone) it would no longer be in the education business; it would be in the partisan-politics business.

Not all universities understand the difference between curricular and extracurricular activities and the different responsibilities attendant on each. They are confused in both directions: They think that the partisan passion of the extracurricular sideshow has a place in the classroom, and they think that something genuinely academic is
going on when speakers invited precisely because they are controversial become the occasion for controversy. They don’t see that it is the administration’s job, first, to ensure that the classroom is a safe space for intellectual deliberation (that’s the only safe space I’m interested in), and, second — a very distant second — to maintain
control of the energies that have been let loose once the decision to have a lecture or mount a panel discussion or allow a rally has been made.

I put it that way so as to emphasize the fact that nothing requires the making of that decision; nothing requires that there be extracurricular activities at all. A university would still be one if all it contained were classrooms, a library, and facilities for research. A university would not be one if all it contained was a quad with some tables on it, a student union with a food court, an auditorium and a bowling alley, a gymnasium with a swimming pool and some climbing walls. You could take away all those things, and along with them the student newspaper, the fraternities, the sororities, the concerts, the athletic events, the dances and everything else
administered by the office of student affairs (which you could get rid of too), and the core of the university would be intact.

So if you’re a college or a university, you don’t have to saddle yourself with any of those extras. But once you’ve decided to add them on, it’s your job to see that they work, which means, mostly, ensuring that events go smoothly and no one gets hurt. If that’s the assignment, many colleges and universities deserve a failing grade.


HT: Matthias E. Storme.

Mr. Fish is obviously right in a strictly definitional sense: yes, take everything else away and leave one lecture room, some books, and a scribbling professor to give lectures, and you still have the core of the university.

But universities in reality never consist simply of such a core. There are also, besides the learned professor in his professional role, the same professor as human being, and along with him there are college administrators, employees, and, yea! even students. Those core activities are always surrounded by a community and by the social, the fraternal, and the recreational penumbrae of human life.

Universities, particularly elite universities, never exist in a vacuum, but rather maintain an active intercourse and constantly communicative relationship with the general society which supports them and whose interests they purport to serve. The university’s core may be research, scholarship, and teaching, but the university is always much more than its core. Every day of the week, its community lives and functions; its clubs and societies hold meetings, lectures, and debates; athletic teams hold practices and competitions; its cultural life manifests itself in the form of exhibitions, concerts, and film showings; and political leaders, intellectuals, and public figures and celebrities visit to use the university as a platform for self-promotion and communication.

The customary traffic in, and exchange of, enhanced prestige between the university and the public figure visiting speaker may be, as Stanley Fish contends, not really central, not part of the university’s core function, but it is, on the other hand, a routine feature of today’s university life, and one of no insignificant value.

The regular presence on campus of nation-wide famous people is a well-recognized and highly visible evidence of a particular university’s comparative status and of its relevance to, and influence upon, the great outer world.

Reasoning that the theoretically adventitious character of a standard feature of university life makes everything about it trivial and reduces the responsibility of university authorities from upholding liberal political ideals and values to merely keeping the peace is really just a clever and tongue-in-cheek exercise in sophistry.

2 Feedbacks on "Stanley Fish Says Free Speech is Not an Academic Value"

Dick the Butcher

The Truth is not an academic value.

Maggie's Farm

Free speech on campus?

Stanley Fish is a very smart guy and like most such people, he occasionally says foolish things. There is this:  Stanley Fish Says Free Speech is Not an Academic Value. That is correct in a very narrow sense, in the sense of his imagining a


Please Leave a Comment!

Please note: Comments may be moderated. It may take a while for them to show on the page.

Entries (RSS)
Comments (RSS)
Feed Shark