My focus here on this blog, before the weekend’s traveling-imposed break, was academic freedom and on ignorant attempts to severely attenuate it at Brooklyn College. These attempts have relied on two patently dishonest, obfuscatory tactics: equating ‘sponsorship’ with ‘endorsement’ and with proposing ‘balance’ as a valid desideratum for academic content. Today, I want to offer some clarification of ‘academic freedom’ by analogizing the Brooklyn College Political Science department’s act of sponsoring a talk on the BDS movement to a professor’s humdrum, mundane, weekday task of including an item on a reading list for a class. Or more generally, by analogizing a department’s selection of academic and intellectual offerings to its students to a professor’s preparation of a syllabus.
So, first, consider my Political Philosophy seminar from last semester. Its reading list featured, among others, Burke, Maistre, Paine, Sieyes, Arendt, Walzer, speeches from Robespierre and Saint Just, excerpts from the Federalist Papers. And so on. Am I ‘endorsing’ these writings? Or ‘sponsoring’ them by including them on my reading list? Or am I ‘merely’ indicating to my students these writers are worth reading for a variety of reasons, historical, cultural, intellectual? These are ‘required’ readings for my class; have I somehow put a seal of approval or ‘endorsement’ on them? Do I intend to ‘indoctrinate’ my students? But what happens to these writers when they ‘meet’ my students? I don’t know. They might find Maistre reasonable or Robespierre utterly pellucid or Burke a raving lunatic. I can’t predict. But I do place the readings on my reading list because in my considered assessment of the class, this would be something valuable to read for those considering Political Philosophy. To say this is to do no more than state the obvious: professors add readings of all kinds, all the time, to their reading lists. Their students might or might not respond favorably to those same readings; class discussions can result in a professor’s ‘favorite’ being torn to shreds. A few years ago, I included Susan Okin in a reading list for a philosophy of feminism class; some of my best and brightest mounted a withering critique of Okin that caught me completely by surprise. Inclusion on a reading list is always an invitation to read, discuss and consider. That is all; do with it what you will. You have read the original; make up your mind.
Or consider the question of balance. Do I always have balance in my readings? No. In the fall of 2010, I taught Problems in the Philosophy of Psychology. I decided I would teach the class with an emphasis on psychoanalysis. I decided further, to teach the class with a concentration on Freud. So I had now made two executive selections about the scope of the class. I had narrowed its focus to psychoanalysis and within that to Freud. There are thus, already, two grounds for complaint from those who would want balance: Why concentrate on psychoanalysis? Why on Freud within psychoanalysis? Why not Jung, Adler, Klein? And then, it gets worse for those would want balance. During the semester, I ‘only’ read a variety of selections from Freud’s corpus along with Jonathan Lear’s little expository book on Freud. But this seems problematic too: Why not read the Popper-Grunbaum critiques of Freud? Why not the feminist critiques? Someone from a science department could conceivably object that I was indoctrinating my students in a pseudo-scientific cult; someone from women’s studies could complain I was propagating sexist, misogynist propaganda. Why didn’t I include anti-Freud voices in my reading list? Surely, I should provide my students some balance? By teaching a whole class on Freud, wasn’t I endorsing him, his writings, his views on women and the appropriate therapeutic treatment of mental disorders, the role of the unconscious in science and philosophy of mind? Heck, wasn’t I endorsing his cocaine use too?
I taught a whole class on Freud and psychoanalysis because I considered Freud and his writings important enough to the philosophy of mind and psychology to deserve that much attention. But why leave out anti-Freud critiques? Because there was enough of Freud to read; because I wanted our readings to be direct and unmediated and to get a chance to be critical on our own and not be guided too much by other critique; and so on. None of these responses of mine are knockdown responses to these objections to my choice of possible syllabi. The next member of the philosophy department that teaches that class will almost certainly devise a very different reading list. But my responses are adequate if taken on good faith and at face value. I was able to expose my students to some important ideas in the philosophy of mind and psychology by doing some very close critical readings of Freud: we considered the problem of the unconscious in great detail; wondered skeptically about Freud’s extravagant claims for psychotherapy, his being prone to the sexism of his times, and so on.
My syllabi are imperfect; they represent compromises between a variety of competing imperatives. They recognize that professors encounter students at a variety of moments, in a variety of ways, that their students’ education takes place over a period of time, that they will need to encounter many different ideas and ways of thinking if they are to think for themselves, that they should read a lot and write a lot if they are to try to make sense of all that confronts them in this complex world. My duty at any given moment is to think about how I can aid in this process: by pointing my students to a variety of topics and writers they should confront and take on. Sometimes these writings will make them uncomfortable, sometimes they will enrage them, sometimes they will confirm prejudice, sometimes reinforce an old one or dispel it. I cannot control my students’ reactions; I can simply point them in one direction.
The freedom I need as I navigate, with my imperfect and incomplete knowledge, among the various choices available to me, and the constraints I face, as I try to work with my students is called ‘academic freedom’; it’s what lets me do my job.