Danny Yee's Book Review

Louis Menand's The Future of Academic Freedom

title: The Future of Academic Freedom
edited: Louis Menand
publisher: the University of Chicago Press 1996
subjects: law, philosophy
other: 239 pages, references, index, US$24.95

Louis Menand opens The Future of Academic Freedom with a brief survey of some current issues surrounding the concept of academic freedom: the effects of postmodernism and multiculturalism, disciplinary and administrative crises, and the problems of extending academic freedom to include students. The next two contributors debate the epistemological status of academic freedom. Richard Rorty argues against the idea that it has philosophical presuppositions, in particular against the idea that it is undermined by the rejection of correspondence theories of truth. Thomas L. Haskell disagrees, but, in the longest piece in the volume, he goes back to the origins of the modern American university, to the Ross incident and the writings of Peirce and Lovejoy, before offering a critique of Rorty and Fish.

There are two essays on hate speech codes. Cass R. Sunstein begins by arguing that only very restricted constraints on hate speech are constitutional; he goes on to explain, however, that this is largely irrelevant to the rights of colleges and universities to restrict speech for educational reasons. For Sunstein, academic freedom embodies "a modest form of liberal perfectionism, designed to exemplify and to promote individual autonomy". In a longer piece, Henry Louis Gates Jr evaluates critical race theory and the hate speech movement. He is not unsympathetic, but his appraisal is ultimately more damning than any simplistic diatribe would be. He demolishes attempts to put the theory on constitutional foundations (using the Beauharnais and _ Chaplinsky cases on group libel and "fighting words") and argues against the rejection of "neutral principles"; he also points out that the movement is bad politics, having fractured the civil rights community.

Joan W. Scott sees academic freedom as an ethical practice, a "commitment to time and to history" and a "relentless striving to close the gap between what is and what ought to be". For Ronald Dworkin it has a value rooted in ethical individualism rather than in its instrumental contribution to the discovery of truth: this limits its applicability. Evelyn Fox Keller writes about the "science wars", debates -- or rather failures of communication -- between scientists on one side and historians and philosophers of science on the other. And Edward W. Said examines connections between nationalism and the university system, with a comparative look at universities in the Arab world.

The Future of Academic Freedom provides original and provocative perspectives on some of the foundational issues in the complex of ideas that is academic freedom. Its contributors approach the subject from fairly abstract philosophical, legal, and ethical positions, so those after a rousing call to arms or a close analysis of specific cases may be disappointed. The Future of Academic Freedom is, indeed, very much an academic work -- and one which exemplifies many of the qualities associated with the freedom that is its subject.

Disclaimer: I requested and received a review copy of The Future of Academic Freedom from the University of Chicago Press, but I have no stake, financial or otherwise, in its success. 15 June 1997

Copyright (c) 1997 Danny Yee, operator of the Book Review Server.