“Academic Freedom” is a cop out by the fearful liberal-left

Academic Paul Norton has written an article at left social-democrat blog Larvatus Prodeo. It’s about the Senate’s Education, Employment and Workplace Relations Committee’s Inquiry into Academic Freedom, and specifically about a submission by the “Make Education Fair” campaign (pdf, over 4 1/2 Mb), which appears to be run by right-wing Young Liberals and the Australian Liberal Students’ Federation. Norton’s article is in response to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald of Friday October 10th, 2008, headlined “Academics Rally Against Young Liberal Witchhunt”.

Most of what Norton says about the Make Education Fair submission seems fairly true. While some of the examples may be true (there’s rarely enough proof to clearly say that bias is as bad as they say), it’s a reactionary document, which seems to push the idea that any sort of university course that questions the status quo is illegitimate in itself. It’s also poorly argued and appears to take quotes out of context to push its point.

But pointing that out is like shooting academics in a barrel where free wine and cheese are on offer. Norton’s argument against the Make Education Fair campaign is that it is a threat to academic freedom. This appears typical, as it is repeated in this article by Katharine Gelber, an academic at the University of New South Wales, and this page at academicfreedom.com.au, set up by the NTEU (the academics’ union).

What they don’t do is put forward an actual case saying why the public should fund courses that critically examine such things as gender, class, race, sexuality and so on. There is absolutely no recognition of the fact that universities are largely paid for with public money, and there is a disdain for the idea that the grubby public or their representatives have any place questioning what happens in universities:

What is remarkable and reprehensible about all this is not that the Liberal Students and Young Liberals have yet again conducted and comported themselves like characters in a B grade Nazi movie. It is that the supposedly mature men and women of the Federal Coalition have given them aid and comfort in their endeavours, and have misused the Senate Committee system in order to provide a taxpayer-funded forum for their extraordinary nonsense.

(Norton’s article linked above), and

The committee’s terms of reference, as set out in parliament by Senator Fifield who instigated the inquiry, are: to investigate the current level of academic freedom in school and higher education, with particular reference to the level of intellectual diversity and the impact of ideological, political and cultural prejudice in the teaching of senior secondary education and of courses at Australian universities, including the content of curricula and course materials and the conduct of teachers and assessments.

The committee is also to investigate the need for accuracy, fairness and “balance” in content, and the promotion of intellectual diversity and “contestability of ideas” (The Australian, HES, June 25, 2008).

This is serious stuff indeed. The very same committee which is to investigate balance and prejudice is simultaneously tasked with promoting academic freedom. This seems like a bit of an oxymoron to me. Find out if we’re prejudiced, and simultaneously protect us from intellectual intrusion. Surely the former constitutes the latter? Doesn’t the inquiry itself, at least in the terms in which it is currently set out, risk academic freedom and intellectual enquiry?

(Gelber’s article linked above).

These sort of responses are defensive and imply that no-one except those people already employed as academics have any right to an opinion on what is taught at universities. This is defended as an ideal of “academic freedom”, without once posing the question “Freedom to do what?”.

Clearly we shouldn’t expect left social-democrats to say “Freedom to teach the desirability of a Marxist-led revolution that takes the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists”. It’s not their job to do our work for us. But why don’t these (using the term broadly, as Paul Norton is a member of the Australian Greens) left social-democrats put up a spirited counter-attack based on what they do and why it is good for people? Why don’t they say something like:

We look at why people are unequal in a formally equal liberal-capitalist society. It’s vitally important that we do this, otherwise all sorts of people don’t have a chance to break out of oppression and take part in the economy on equal terms. If we don’t do this, the most powerful people in our society will be rich white men and no-one else will even get a look in. Which is why the ALSF hates us so much – if we do our work well, they’ll have less power.

I’m sure that higher education in a Marxist society won’t be able to hide behind “academic freedom”. While we should to recognise the value of expertise in a certain area, we shouldn’t use that as a reason to let academics be unanswerable to anyone except themselves. Academics – of all people – should be expected to justify what they do and how it is useful, rather than hiding behind “academic freedom”.

3 Responses to ““Academic Freedom” is a cop out by the fearful liberal-left”

  1. 1 arthur

    Hi Dave, really liked the article!But shouldn’t it be followed up with a conclusion that there is in fact a rational reason why the liberal academics are behaving as they do.ie their actual role is to propagate ruling class ideology, which they are doing by maintaining the orthodoxy they do maintain by methods rightly attacked as hostile to genuine academic freedom.They resent and fear being told how to do their jobs by interfering reactionaries who would only make it more difficult to preserve orthodoxy and are indignantly demanding state assistance to repel the interference.Sorry, I haven’t read the links, but am assuming the reactionaries are hopelessly naive about the actual social function of liberal academic orthodoxy and the futility of any dreams they might have of enabling a more conservative academic orthodoxy as opposed to inevitably inviting students to start actually thinking if you permit significant controversy at all.

  2. 2 youngmarxist

    Hey arthur, glad you liked the article. I hadn’t thought this through to the points you’re talking about, so you’ve provoked me to do that.Yep, the reactionaries remind me of people attacking Franklin Roosevelt as some sort of communist while he was busy saving capitalism from itself. Their implication of their line is the usual one that radical left thought (as they see it) has an illegitimate hold in academia and that the “leftists” are traitors to a serene, happy Australia that has no need for anyone to question the way its society is set up.Clearly a ruling class can’t transform a society like Australia from a monocultural, male-dominated etc Anglo society to a multi-cultural form of capitalism without thinking about how old social forms were created and enforced.What confuses me on a gut level is that both sides in this argument have a vested interest in NOT labelling the left-liberal academics as the spreaders of ruling-class ideology. The academics themselves obviously like to be seen as brave dissidents fighting against reactionary cultural norms (ZOMG the evil gummint passed SEDITION LAWS!!!1!one), and the reactionaries are unlikely to admit that a ruling class even exists, let alone that they and their ideas are now a minority in it.I suppose that might account for the weakness of the liberal-left response. If you’re conflicted about the role you play in society you’re unlikely to be able to confidently say “This is what we do, this is why we do it, and this is why our ideas are better than yours”.Going back to that gut level, it’s a sign of my own immersion in liberal-left ideals that I find it emotionally difficult to accept that these left-liberals are in fact the propagators of ruling-class ideology. Part of me wants to believe that they are in fact brave dissidents. I have to work hard to remind myself that they are fully committed to the current system of wage-labour, despite their languidly cynical denunciations of some parts of our current system.

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