Monday, November 24, 2008

Academic Freedom and its Limits

Stanley Fish at the NYT approvingly reviews an upcoming book that looks at the constitutional and legal aspects of academic freedom. Each of us has their own pet case of this academic or that who was removed or should have been removed for the outlandish positions they were taking - nay, the outright stupid and dangerous positions. Matthew W. Finken and Robert C. Post suggest that academic freedom requires protection for viewpoints no matter how disturbing, as long as their academic methodology is solid - but not when the methodology is specious.

For us historians this would mean, I suppose, that you can't invent sources out of whole cloth. But what about a historian who plows through thick files of documents, and cherry-picks the few pages that fit their thesis while quite overlooking all of the rest? (I'm thinking of a specific historian, whose books are widely acclaimed and sold, but there must be quite a few of them). I'm not so certain the authors' solution is all that easy to implement. Once you get into the airy disciplines such as literary criticism, things will have to spin out of control.

But it's a nice thesis.


Anonymous said...


"Can't invent out of whole cloth?"

This reminds me that when the Romans became Stronger than Greece; what also was wanted were "antiques." So there was a thriving business in "antiques." Which, by dint of survival, have reached us in our day and age. And, they're worth fortunes!

I'm also reminded of Bill Buckley's comment "he would rather be ruled by the first 500 names in the Boston telephone book; than by the professors at Harvard.

And, if you want a real treat? Go read Malcolm Gladwell's book OUTLIERS. It will surprise ya.

Gladwell's first book was TIPPING POINT, showing how something "minor," if it occurs at a critical juncture, has major consequences. (One example he used was "the Ride of Paul Revere.") He said another Bostonian also was brought awake with the news "The Redcoats were coming." ... ANd, he, too, saddled up. Both Revere and this other guy, lost to history, took different routes. Revere actually roused soldiers ... who went to Breed's Hill (later to be renamed Bunker Hill.) While the man who galloped a different route; and banged on doors. Had no effect at all. No one got up. The occupants rolled over and went back to sleep.

Gladwell's point in THE TIPPING POINT was to show how a crucial event worked.

In Blink he talked about how a "flash" of an idea, and flowing it, is just as good as long hours of study.

And, now in Outliers he is taking on the mistaken belief that geniuses are born. And, not made.

Not so, says Gladwell. Every success has studied and worked hard, before becoming famous. It's a mistake to think you're so gifted, you can produce work just as easily just by snapping your fingers.

Right now academia is in decline.

Looking over the whole history? You'd see how books became valuable; even though they were written by hand. And, hard to get. And, how illiterate even kings were. King Richard the First was trying to learn to read, as an adult. So there are these saved documents; which look like a kindegartiner's attempt at writing.

Meanwhile, Europeans learned to farm more efficiently. To feed more people. And, with this came the Cathedral Building, which gave the peasantry something to do. Something really outstandingly beautiful to build. Which could take 100 years.

And, then the Cathedrals became gathering places where religion was taught on Sundays. (There wasn't really all that much free time, back in the good old days.)

But it was these Cathedrals that began attracting scholars. And, this began the university, as a very special place where you could persue learning.

One of Gladwell's points in OUTLIERS, is that genius often gets stuck becoming experts at one thing. Instead of enjoying the full range of an open mind.

Do things change?

Don't they always?

As to History, there's no other field that is so dependent on "whole cloth." Take, for instance, what you know of Shakespeare. And, how when a piece of the puzzle shows up, people go to great lengths to weave "fabric" around this stuff.

We're lucky we've got remnants.

In math, too, you need to do creative thinking. How else did we ever open the door to the Hubble Telescope without pressing against the envelope of knowledge, step by step.

And, now, in the Age of the Internet, information flows around so quickly; you're no longer looking at isolated cases stuck up in an ivory tower.

Maybe, that's the blessing? In our day and age your "scholars" may be few and far between. But there are so many people who have the curiosity to follow this stuff; that it's hardly likely mistakes will get anchored into the substance of subjects.

Rejects? Of course, there's gonna be garbage to toss!

Oh, and then? Archeologists sift through the garbage piles of the old Romans. That's what I mean by "ya gotta be curious."

Lydia McGrew said...

I'm afraid there's no substitute for really being able to tell that some idea is ridiculous within the terms of the discipline--or the terms which should inform the discipline. Nor is this really a matter of "methodology" per se. It can just be a matter of being willfully obtuse and irrational. Is that "methodology"? And a lot of times the so-called "disturbing" ideas are linked to people's being willfully obtuse and irrational, though not always. Sometimes it's actually the people who are entrenched in the discipline who are being willfully obtuse and irrational. There's no way to make some sort of mechanical method for deciding these things. If I were an administrator I would get very little sleep, because I would always feel like I had to look into tenure decisions personally. And what would I say when it came to disciplines that I thought were pseudo-disciplines where I thought the whole department should be fired? Gee, how to decide whether someone _deserves_ tenure in the university's Department of Rabid Feminist Ideology. Where would one start?

So you just have to look at each thing on a case-by-case basis and be willing to find out enough about the discipline to make an informed decision as to whether a legitimate idea is being blocked out by entrenched interests or whether a kookball is being rightly denied the mantle of respectability that comes from academic recognition.