Stanley Fish Underestimates Academic Freedom

By on September 4, 2008

Stanley Fish has an interesting but flawed article on academic freedom in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Fish starts with the false premise that academic freedom is either a "guild concept" or is tied to larger concept of freedom, and he misses the fact that it is actually both.

After setting up his either/or premise, Fish concludes academic freedom is only a guild concept, writing, "Academic freedom is not a subset of freedom in general…. academic freedom is not a general freedom like the freedoms guaranteed you by the Constitution and the First Amendment; it is task-specific and task-limited."

Fish emphasizes that academic freedom is only the "freedom to do the job" and thinking otherwise "carries with it the danger of thinking that we are doing something noble and even vaguely religious…" Fish accordingly rejects the Supreme Court’s long-established view that academic freedom is protected by the First Amendment, and insists that the only legal protection for academic freedom in our society comes from contracts.

Fish is certainly correct that academic freedom is a guild concept governing the job of academics. However, his assertion that it is either a guild concept or a broader moral concept is peculiar, given that professional tasks are usually governed by broader moral concepts. A judge’s task, for example, arises out of justice; a doctor’s task arises out of healing; a policeman’s task arises out of protecting the innocent. The ethical canons governing those professions accordingly contain those broader moral concepts within their guild rules.

The task of academics, despite Fish’s claim to the contrary, is no exception, and it is indeed a "noble" pursuit. The academic task is the pursuit of truth. This task requires freedom of thought and freedom of speech, which is why academic freedom refers to both the regulation of the profession and the broader moral concepts. When the Supreme Court says that the First Amendment protects the marketplace of ideas, and that the university is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas, that is precisely what the Court means: The government is precluded from suppressing speech in all of society, but attempts to suppress the speech of academics is particularly heinous because the whole point of the academic endeavor is to pursue ideas freely.

Fish acknowledges the academy must be free from external restraint, but he characterizes this as merely the freedom to engage in the "academic enterprise," which he defines as "pursuing a line of inquiry to whatever conclusion it brings you." He explicitly says this is not "freedom of thought," but "pursing a line of inquiry to whatever conclusion it brings" sounds suspiciously just like the freedom of thought. Indeed, it is hard to come up with a description of the academic enterprise that will not entail the freedom to think and speak, as both freedoms are necessary to the pursuit of knowledge.

Fish is correct in pointing out that academic freedom does not mean a freedom for any purpose. It means freedom to pursue and define knowledge, which is why the profession can only be entered after great efforts to produce a contribution to a particular discipline’s understanding of knowledge. Faculties can and do refuse tenure to a professor who is, in their judgment, not capable of contributing to their discipline’s understanding. State legislators are prevented from making the same judgmentwhether or not to tenure a professorbecause the academic enterprise requires experts in the pursuit and understanding of knowledge to determine whether to let a new member into the profession. If the state legislator substitutes her judgment for the schools, the pursuit and understanding of knowledge is endangered because the state legislator is not an expert in that pursuit, nor is she as likely to be motivated by it. 

Academic freedom requires that both educational institutions as a whole and individual members of those enjoy freedom of thought and speech. Tenure contractually guarantees the freedom of thought and speech to individual professors so that they may each pursue their understanding of knowledge freely, regardless of whether the governing faculty later comes to see the individual professor as headed down a false path. 

Fish’s characterization of academic freedom as "only a guild concept" hinges on his attempt to characterize the academic enterprise as "only a job." Yet Fish fails in that attempt as he fails to provide a description of the academic enterprise that frees it from its particular and noble purpose: pursuing the truth. And this is a purpose that requires freedom of speech and thought: broad moral concepts that underlie the academy in particular and our free society in general.