March 21, 2007

Academic Freedom

Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford, and the Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell had an interesting exchange yesterday in Westminster Hall about academic Freedom (further details can be found on Dr. Harris's website). Evan Harris drew to the minister's attention the recent case of Dr. Matthias Kuntzel, the case of Professor David Coleman at Oxford University and the case of the Chester University which acknowledges academic freedom so long as that freedom does not conflict with the ethos of the University, similar regulations have been brought in by Canterbury Christchurch University to protect the peculiar Anglican institutional arrangements of the University. Dr. Harris submitted his opposition to no-platform policies against Hizb ul Tahrir as well and the Minister agreed that all these cases represented things that the government was worried about.

There is a lot here- and we need to work out what exactly is at stake in each and every case. Dr Harris fundementally is right- from the 12th Century Universities have been the places where new ideas have largely been generated- great academics from Newton and Vico in the 17th Century forward to the Feynmans and Nozicks of our own day have illuminated the world in ways that in their own day were seen as controversial. Defeating an academic argument does not mean depriving the arguer of his or her employment but defeating the premises of the argument. Within academia, the environment of journals and seminars gives us the mechanism to do so- for example in my own discipline history, presenting a paper in Cambridge or at the Institute of Historical Research, both of which I have done, is an experience which can be crushing if you dare get anything wrong or dare misplace a fact let alone the entire basis for your theorising.

Dr. Harris is also right that part of life in a university is going to be the intrusion of crazy groups like Hizb- unless the government makes them illegal, they should have their place on Campus. Sinister behaviour can unite them and other more attractive sounding groups. University is about intellectual growth for the students concerned, part of the process involves hearing charlatans in order to recognise in the future what charlatans are. It is not for universities whose role is to encourage discussion to limit that discussion, nor is it the role of student unions, filled in my experience, with many either silly or immature individuals to decide what is or is not acceptable to be heard- that is a matter for the government and the courts. As far as possible Universities ought to be places where all the idiotic stupidities in the world congregate and are defeated by the truest method, before which they all crash down, the power of reason. Freedom of speech need not mean forced listening- if Hizb doesn't get an audience tough, indeed if particular bodies like the student union don't wish to fund such a meeting, tough but noone bar noone should be able to stop that- a meeting say of Hizb ul Tahrir or the BNP- which is allowed under the law of the land.

As to ethos, no University can be a university truly if it stakes its position upon an intellectual orthodoxy- as foolish as the Papal courts which prescribed Galilei Galileo such a university would find itself very swiftly doing something idiotic. Canterbury University to deserve the name should employ Richard Dawkins right away in order to vindicate the idea that the institution is committed to understanding the world and not to indoctrination- the only ethos that should lie behind University life should be the search for the truth. No intellectual establishment be it school or university can remain credible and retain a 'Christian ethos' or a 'Muslim mission' or indeed an 'atheist purpose'- to do so immediately limits the field of discussion and consequently means that the institution is unable to function properly. The only ethos for any university should be that all its students, all its academics are able to search for the truth. In one sense therefore this requires one ammendment- if an academic proves unable to teach all his or her students equally for any reason- if for example he demands that Muslims leave the class or if she demands that men leave the class- then in my view they can be sacked. Not for the view notice, but for the inability to carry out their job to the best of their abilities- ie the inability to treat their students as students instead of as members of a sub group.

There is one way that Universities can and should discriminate and that is by intelligence. It isn't true that freedom of speech means that any fool can or should get a job or give a paper. There are accepted rules about the way we discuss things, not the conclusions but the way we talk in academia. In history, a paper which lacks footnotes, replete with anachronism, which talks in sweeping generalisations about 'Islam' or 'the West' or 'the Slavic soul' or any such mystical nonsense deserves to be dismissed and its author dismissed with it (unless they can prove upon empirical evidence that what they say is right!) Similarly a scientific paper that does not mention experiments or mathematics, deserves as David Hume once famously said to be cast to the flames. Creationists should be able to get PhDs of course- but not by writing despite all the evidence that fossils date from only the last 3,000 years or denying the clear evidence that the big bang happened.

Once you have passed through the process of getting an academic degree or getting an academic job, you do have an authority on the other things that you say. Doing a PhD say is a discipline which teaches you about the way that evidence works and the way that it coheres towards a thesis. Almost noone who has not done a PhD has produced an 80,000 or 100,000 word treatise which has been vetted by leading specialists in the field and tested rigorously. Consequently when someone like Dr David Coleman speaks for Migration watch- he should be allowed to mention his PhD and his job, by doing that he says that I have actually done serious work and am not just some journalist who has read three books and knows no more what good research is than what a Unicorn looks like. However having said that, someone with a PhD can be an idiot and Dr Coleman's credentials should not deprive him of criticism.

Academic Freedom is a tense subject at the moment- from all sides the fundamentalists are rising once more to threaten the space in which conversation happens. From all sides we are informed that a certain discussion impinges upon the freedom of those that hear it- that a certain discussion for example over the Iraq war is treason. We ought to be perfectly aware that there is a space for conversations and that space is limited by law, anything that the government declares to be illegal is so, but anything else is legal and should remain so. There are questions about how far the law reaches- but those questions are not to be resolved by anyone not in the government, least of all universities or their students.

Dr Harris represents one of the most prestigious universities in the world, he is right to raise this in Parliament and this blog wishes that Universities around the country and around the world listen to the Liberal (in all senses of the word) Member for Oxford West and Abingdon.


Ian Appleby said...

That is a tour de force: as fine a declaration in support of true academic freedom as I have read in quite some time.

Nonetheless, I'm not able to offer my usual fairly unqualified agreement in this instance: I supported the decision to expel Frank Ellis. Part of my argument that he was using his academic credentials - obtained through his Russian expertise - to give credence to some quite dubious theories some way from his specialism, without acknowledging that it wasn't his particular field.

Maybe I should have made more allowance for his ability to weigh evidence - after all, I recently made a similar point myself over at Bel's. Perhaps Fabian was right, and I was letting my feelings about him as a person - I met him once, before I knew of his views, and was not impressed - and about his views once I knew of them cloud my judgement too much.

I do still wonder, though, whether all his students could have had full confidence in him. But was there any evidence that some of them in fact did not? On the basis of this excellent piece, I think I'm going to have to re-open that particular file and mull it over some more.

Matthew Sinclair said...

This is a brilliant post but I have a few questions for you:

In some subjects the line between idiotic and brilliant is less clear than others. Particularly subjects where mathematical proof is impossible and evidence is often unclear such as history or philosophy. Equally, the decision as to whether something is idiotic or brilliant is being made by humans and while they may be knowledgeable they are as capable of pride or prejudice as anyone else.

Given these flaws how can we rely upon as uncertain a criteria as subjective idiocy to select? Might we be accepting those who are actually idiotic (Ward Churchill springs to mind) and ruling out some who aren't (most likely we'd never here of them again)?

Does this worry you and is there anything that can be done to make sure the selection heuristic is effective?

Graeme said...

Oh dear, Ward Churchill. I saw him speak at Concordia University in Montreal some years ago and his talk was utter tosh. He claimed at one point that all the ills of the world--misogyny, homophobia, etc--were in fact caused by colonialism. However, do academics actually take him seriously? He seems one of these figures (much like Chomsky's writings on anythine but linguistics) that are perhaps widely read but have very little influence in the academy because their works don't meet the required standards. For instance, take a look at the review for Chomsky's New Military Humanism from Human Rights Review (and accessible from the Bosnian Insitute's website).

This of course doesn't address that charlatans can be quite influential simply because they are read while credible academics may not be. Maybe this means that academics have to look beyond just the universities and engage with the public at large--which many of course do.

In any case, this is yet another characteristically thought-provoking piece from you, Gracchii, and it was a pleasure to read it.

Gracchi said...

I have to say I don't know much about Ward Churchill so am not going to comment on him. I haven't read much Chomsky- what I did read was some of his political stuff his recent book on American foreign policy- and I thought it lacked any systemic analysis of what was going on. But we could all name dodgy academics and if you think about it given the number of academics in the world there are bound to be some idiots- just by the law of averages.

As to the point about academics engaging with the public- yes by all means.

Ian on the point about Frank Ellis (I've linked to a BBC report on the issue for those who like me had forgotten about it) I think its an interesting case. If it was effecting the way that he was teaching- ie if discrimination could be proved in the way that he marked then I think there would be a case for dismissal or even say if he encouraged white students to ask questions and not black students. I suppose there might be an issue with him teaching if it made students feel uncomfortable: say if he violated his duty of care by saying that all black students were stupid in front of a group of students. To me there is a distinction between sacking someone on the ground of being incapable to fairly teach their students and holding a view. You could be a silent racist or silent sexist. I think its a difficult issue and I understand how you find it hard- but that would be my feeling at the moment.

Matt on your point. I think there are academic conventions- footnoting etc. I'm not sure that you can ever get out of the heuristic but I think its a marginal problem rather than a major one. I'll think about it a bit more though.

Gracchi said...

Oh and however idiotic Churchill and Chomsky are- I don't think they should be sacked on the argument I've made.