From the Editor: The Politics of Knowledge

By Joan W. Scott

This special issue of Academe was inspired by the AAUP’s recent statement In Defense of Knowledge and Higher Education. The articles that follow explore the issues raised in that statement, which responds to the current assault on higher education and on the author­ity of the knowledge and expertise it produces. Robert Post’s opening essay, an address to the fiftieth reunion of the Harvard class of 1969, puts the matter clearly: even at the height of his youthful rebellion against the stultifying norms of the era (and of the university), Post writes, his “rebellion was infused with a con­stitutive appreciation of the authority of disciplined thought and expertise. . . . We all came to recognize that the world can be improved only on the basis of sound information and research.” This view was one that inspired the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure in writing the statement.

As will be seen in other articles in this issue, the AAUP statement—necessarily short and aimed at a broad audience—leaves unexplored difficult questions about the very concepts it takes for granted: knowl­edge, discipline, expertise, and the profound differences in the meanings of those concepts for the sciences and the humanities. As a retort to the extreme politiciza­tion of knowledge (scientific knowledge especially, with climate-change denial being a prime example), the state­ment also makes a case for expertise as somehow above the fray of competing interests. It implies an opposi­tion between politics and knowledge that some of the articles in this issue want to contest.

If Committee A member and climate scien­tist Michael Mann had been able to write for this issue, he might well have shown us how that science-politics opposition works. His discussion of “Climategate” in one of his Newsweek columns is worth citing at length:

Ten years ago, hackers with links to Russia and Wikileaks broke into an email server in the U.K., and released stolen emails in a massive, carefully orchestrated disinformation campaign designed to impact the upcoming Copenhagen Climate Sum­mit of December 2009. Words from the emails were disingenuously rearranged and taken out of context . . . to misrepresent both the science and the scientists. Even the name attached to the affair—“Climategate”—was the product of a care­fully crafted narrative foisted on the public and policy makers in a collaborative effort by fossil fuel industry front groups, paid attack dogs, and conservative media outlets. Mainstream media couldn’t resist the bait, and before long the news was buzzing with talk of how emails expose the seedy underbelly of the climate science world.

The stolen emails led to a lengthy investigation of whether Mann had engaged in scientific misconduct. A committee at Pennsylvania State University, where he teaches, concluded unanimously that no such mis­conduct had taken place. Indeed, in part because of his and his colleagues’ relentless advocacy, the results of climate science have since become more widely accepted, although populist political attacks have not ceased. And not just against climate science. As this issue of Academe went to press, there were reports that Anthony Fauci, a voice of integrity in the other­wise confused response to the COVID-19 pandemic coming from the White House, had been assigned Secret Service protection because of threats on his life from the Right. Seizing on the necessary uncertainty of epidemiological models, the Fox News propaganda machine has dismissed Fauci and his science as part of a “deep state” plot to overthrow Trump. But, argues Columbia University professor Raúl Rabadán, “Epidemiological models evaluate the most common scenarios given current data and public health policies. Good models capture the relevant projections and the uncertainty, which in many cases is large, especially in longer-term predictions. Good models help to allocate resources, protect the population and our health-care workers who are putting their lives in danger. Denials and attacks on scientists do not help anyone.”

But what if scientists themselves compromise their research for political reasons? That this happens regu­larly and without public awareness is the import of Kate Brown’s article, which focuses on scientific investigations of the impact of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Writing about the field of health physics, which evaluates the effects of nuclear accidents and sets standards for protec­tion from radiation, she warns that the science “as it is practiced inside university labs and government orga­nizations . . . is far from an independent field engaged in the objective, open-ended pursuit of knowledge.” Among other things, the distinction between public and classified research also enabled the suppression of data about radiation levels in human populations in the wake of nuclear testing at Chernobyl, at Three Mile Island, and, later, at Fukushima. Brown shows how, in these circumstances, the very terms of scientifically approved measurement were politically inflected.

Judith Butler’s essay offers a powerful “dissenting view” to another aspect of the AAUP knowledge state­ment. The humanities, Butler says, simply do not fit the statement’s invocation of authoritative knowledge. If in some fields appeals to authority may be justified, in the humanities they are not. Instead, Butler argues, critical inquiry is what the humanities offer, and this does not depend on expertise, at least as scientists would define it.

Joy Connolly continues the discussion of the humanities, reviewing the pressures that have led to its decline as a priority for colleges and universi­ties as they seek to assure their paying customers (students) of jobs after graduation. Her defense of humanistic studies as a way of promoting under­standing across differences is combined with an endorsement of the necessity for academic freedom if scholars are “to produce work that is critical and, in its essence, countercultural.” It is to become aware of diverse modes of thinking and living—a rare experi­ence that, as Dewey said of art, involves “more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruc­tion which may be painful.”

Christopher Newfield takes up the question of academic freedom in an article that recounts the many years of structural shifts that have disempowered faculty. In the face of these changes, he calls for a sustained campaign to implement what he calls cogov­ernance. As university administrators have capitulated to pressures from outside funders and politicians, he says, the loss of the faculty’s power to protect faculty autonomy to conduct research and teach has severely affected how knowledge is produced. There is an inherent politicization at the very heart of the univer­sity, Newfield implies, that corrupts the possibilities for the production of both scientific and humanistic knowledge—knowledge that depends on our ability to critically interrogate how and what we know.

Newfield is not posing politics against knowledge; instead he’s calling upon faculty to engage in a form of counterpolitics that, perhaps paradoxically, will pro­tect our freedom to think critically about and against received opinion. The process, he concludes, is one in which “academic freedom [is] a conduit of public knowledge.” And cogovernance—faculty inclusion in all aspects of university decision-making—is the insti­tutional arrangement that will make this possible.

The articles in this special issue illuminate the complexities—conceptual, critical, structural, and political—of the production of knowledge. In their variety and emphases, the discussions demonstrate the importance of what higher education should be about: sustained and conflicting conversations about how to understand—and change—the worlds we inhabit.