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Sunday, December 17th, 2006
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Academic Freedom After September 11

by Beshara Doumani

The War on Terror in the Halls of Academe

A review by Jen Besemer

In a nation whose administration dedicates vast human and economic resources to uphold the popular fiction that its foreign policy is concerned mainly with protecting freedom "both here and abroad," it is surprising that the actual practice of such protection collapses when it runs afoul of the less photogenic bits of foreign policy. Much space has already been given to the more obvious areas -- such as the USA PATRIOT Act -- in which personal freedom has been made to bow beneath the weight of national interests as defined within the White House. Public outcry is rightly generated by intrusion of government agencies into the private lives of "ordinary citizens" through increased surveillance and the specter of illegal access to phone and internet communications. Less concern is felt for the problem of academic freedom in institutions of higher learning.

Yet threats to academic freedom are symptoms of a larger syndrome infecting the United States, and while the phrase "thought control" risks sounding hysterical, it is the best description possible of the intent behind (and likely result of) the intrusion of special -- or national -- interests in higher education. Censorship of personal expression is too simplistic a lens through which to view the problem; at stake is less the ability to say what one believes than the ability to analyze the world fully, to develop ideas based on a complete and skillful critical thinking process. Corporate and government involvement in the curricula and administration of colleges and universities severely limits the development and use of critical thinking skills, crippling citizens' abilities to actively participate in the governance of their own lives.

Academic Freedom after September 11, a volume of essays presented at the February 27, 2004 conference of the same name, exposes and explores just what happens when foreign policy interests and good old American anti-intellectualism unite to influence the level of discourse permitted on college and university campuses. The book's focus is primarily on four-year research universities that receive the support of charitable foundations and/or host government-sponsored language and "area studies" programs (especially Middle East Studies). But the issues raised in the seven essays have implications reaching far beyond the walls of these elite institutions. Editor Beshara Doumani's introductory piece summarizes the nature of the issue:

Knowledge is being commercialized and sold on the open market as a product for the private good by a fantastically large array of nonprofit public and private institutions and for-profit multinational corporations operating both in brick-and-mortar settings and in cyberspace. This is all taking place in an increasingly deregulated environment in which politicians clamor for accountability and flexibility, corporations and special-interest groups for control of the product, and academic administrators for more autonomy and money.
Doumani's most pertinent observation is in the form of a question: "Can critical thought -- the beating heart of academic freedom -- survive in such a corporatized environment?" With that question, we are oriented within the debate to follow.

How is academic freedom related to the constitutional freedom of speech? In his contribution to the volume, Robert Post highlights the differences between the idea of academic freedom as a legally-guaranteed individual right of unimpeded self-expression, and as a sort of professional obligation, a commitment to the free and careful investigation and analysis of competing, contrasting, or controversial viewpoints, techniques, and means of knowledge, under the banner of professional academic standards. College and university administrators, he argues, must simultaneously encourage their tenured faculty to exercise their individual rights to teach according to their conscience and intellect while in the classroom, and to adhere to high academic standards regarding research and publication when they are representing their institutions in journals, at seminars, and in other professional forums. For Post, academic freedom within the classroom relates to the constitutional freedom of speech only as far as that speech serves the goal of encouraging the use or teaching the methods of responsible inquiry. For research professors, academic freedom applies to the investigation and publication process, and Post asserts that only fellow academics have the expertise (and should therefore be granted the right) to determine the value and validity of both the research and its presentation. No other overseeing body is appropriate.

Kathleen J. Frydl's compelling contribution to the volume raises the question of the actual or implied purposes of higher education in the United States, also positing that a key component in academic freedom (as with any freedom) is the ability to participate in power. She implies that one of the purposes of education is to allow those who undertake it to participate in the mechanisms of power in the U.S. But why do millions of students enroll in colleges and universities in this country? If, as the general practice indicates, higher education is meant to be essentially a type of experiential mutual fund -- an investment of time and money by the student or student's family for a reasonable guarantee of return on that investment -- the influence of corporations and corporate models upon the structure, funding, and content of college and university programs is not surprising, nor is the lack of analysis of its influence. Frydl asks, "How does a modern mass society create and sustain elite and highly specialized mechanisms for producing power while also creating and sustaining legitimacy for that project in the name of the masses?" This, like Doumani's question, is a pivotal one in the book's investigation.

The catalyst for the symposium and the book stemming from it was a piece of proposed legislation, HR 3077, that alarmed academics and civil liberties groups alike when it was first presented. The proposed legislation did not pass, but the same essential bill, revised and re-submitted as HR 509, is still under consideration by the 109th Congress. Both the original and revised bill contain wording that indicate -- and stipulate that programs in receipt of Federal funds ensure that their programming and curricula remain "reflective of the full range of views" and "diverse perspectives" on Middle East policy. While outwardly innocuous and even liberal-seeming, those phrases are shown, in the essays by Joel Beinin and Ingrid Newhall, to be coded doublespeak that provides a mechanism to shut out discourse and dissent on the U.S. support of Israel in particular, as well as criticism of Israel's actions in the Middle East.

While HR 509 has not yet been passed into law, its existence is worth knowing about for anyone who is concerned about retaining (or gaining) the ability to engage in reasoned analysis, debate, and decision-making. Whether one teaches, studies, or is simply interested in the flow and mechanism of power, Academic Freedom after September 11 is an important book simply for its keen examination of the complex series of factors that inform the motivations and outcomes of higher education in the U.S. at the present time. Must higher education simultaneously serve the interests of the state, of corporate capitalism, and individual aspirations to wealth? Is there some other purpose that education as a practice might also serve, beyond and independent of the bankbook, boardroom or defense budget? We all have a stake in these questions, and a right to reason through our answers.


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