Knowledge for the Common Good

A plenary presentation from the AAUP’s 2019 annual conference.
By Joan W. Scott

I want to begin with the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the document that codified the principles and practices of academic freedom:

Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free exposition. . . . Academic freedom can serve the public good only if universities as institutions are free from outside pressures in the realm of their academic mission and individual faculty members are free to pursue their research and teaching subject only to the academic judgment of their peers.

The key term in this quotation is “the common good,” its resonance dating from the Progressive Era, the moment of the founding of the AAUP more than a century ago. The “common good” meant the good of society as a whole; the “free search for truth and its free exposition” resulted in the knowledge upon which social, economic, political, and scientific progress depended. Academic freedom was meant to protect not only the continuous production of that knowledge (by means of unfettered research), but its transmission (by teachers whose autonomy in the classroom was inviolate). The education of an intelligent and informed citizenry was taken to be the very underpinning of democratic government. Progressives believed that an educated citizenry would offset the corrupting influence of powerful interest groups, thereby maintaining the health of the nation.

Academic freedom rested on the assumption that knowledge and power were separable; the pursuit of truth ought to have nothing to do with public conflicts of interest, even if new knowledge might weigh in on one side or another of one of those conflicts. The AAUP’s founders, in the 1915 report of the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, defined the university as “an inviolable refuge from [the] tyranny [of public opinion] . . . an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen.” And they defined professors as “contagious center[s] of intellectual enthusiasm”: “It is better for students to think about heresies than not to think at all; better for them to climb new trails and stumble over error if need be, than to ride forever in upholstered ease on the over-crowded highway.”

Academic freedom was not freedom in the ordinary sense—indeed in the sense in which is often invoked today, as an individual right of anyone associated with an institution of higher education. Instead, as the legal scholar Adam Sitze puts it in his 2017 essay “Academic Unfreedom, Unacademic Freedom,” “free inquiry in academia is predicated on voluntarily assumed forms of unfreedom that are unique to the academy.” The freedom to produce and transmit knowledge is limited by disciplinary norms that certify a scholar or teacher’s expertise, whose years of study have (again to quote Sitze) “turned one into . . . someone whose desire is structured by the voluntary assumption of limits on the sayable and the thinkable, limits that entail distinctions of true and false.” Sitze’s examples are worth noting:

The biologist is not free to speak as though evolution were not the decisive premise for the study of life on earth. The climate scientist is not free to pretend that climate change is not human-caused. The historian is not free to pretend that slave labor does not account for the genesis and basis of American culture, society, and politics. The poet or novelist, who uniquely embodies the right to say anything, is nevertheless unfree to stay silent when a poem or novel rings false.

Knowledge is, then, the accumulated product of disciplined thought, verified by communities of scholars. It is, of course, what we take to be scientific fact (that vaccines prevent certain diseases, for example, or that the earth revolves around the sun), but it also refers to those areas that John Dewey said were bound up with “the problems of life”—these are the humanities and the social sciences, which offer interpretive, evidence-based readings of social structures, patterns of discrimination, art, and literature, as they exist and change over time. In the academy, it is scholars who are trained to produce knowledge, teachers who are trained to transmit it, and students who are expected to acquire the discipline to read critically and thereby to learn to distinguish between true and false. This kind of learning is the opposite of indoctrination, which leaves no room for questioning what is being taught. Indeed, to the extent that students may be thought to have academic freedom, it is precisely their ability to question things that is at stake. But that doesn’t mean substituting opinion for knowledge. Rather, it involves learning to think within the limits that knowledge production requires. Those limits do not mean that what counts as knowledge is forever fixed. The processes by which change occurs (often in the form of difficult contests between orthodoxy and innovation) are always subjected to demanding communal standards, themselves open to challenge and change. The pursuit of truth, after all, is an endless and ever-evolving process. The regents of my PhD alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, put it this way in 1894: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.” These complicated processes of sifting and winnowing are what knowledge production is all about and what academic freedom is designed to protect.

This means that free speech, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, is not the same as academic freedom. Freedom of speech is an individual right to express one’s views without regard for their truth or falsehood. The standard of truth does not constrain the unfettered expression of individual opinion. This right is defined as private property, belonging to an individual. In contrast, academic freedom is a corporate right that covers those who produce and transmit knowledge. The one is about individual self-expression, the other is about collective contributions to the common good—they are not the same.

Yet, recently the distinction between academic freedom and free speech has become blurred. Administrators looking to promote civility on campus have offered the metaphor of the “marketplace of ideas” to encourage tolerance of diverse points of view both inside and outside the classroom. Although there are many different ways of pursuing truth, the marketplace is not one of them. Leaving the test of the validity of knowledge to the market abdicates academic responsibility and, indeed, subsumes what counts as knowledge to other tests of its acceptability—these days those are especially political tests.

It is exactly that politicizing of knowledge that led Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, to warn conservative students that “the fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professor to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously what to think.” The truth-claims of knowledge are, here, beside the point, as they are in the many Goldwater Institute model “campus free speech” bills being passed into law by state legislatures. These laws insist that professors present both sides of an issue in the classroom (for example, evolution and creationism) in order to protect the student right of free speech. Teachers can regulate speech, “provided that [they do so] in a viewpoint and content-neutral manner.” In effect, students are allowed to say anything they want, removing intellectual authority from the professor. This is the import of testimony given by a member of College Republicans at the University of Tennessee in support of one of these bills: “Students are often intimidated by the academic elite in the classroom. Tennessee is a conservative state, we will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate eighteen-year-olds.” A similar disdain for the importance of knowledge production comes regularly from Donald Trump and his Republican enablers, who have cut funding for climate research, for the study of violence in relation to gun rights, and for stem-cell research, as well as for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities. Trump’s executive order last March carried DeVos’s comments one step further: “If a college or university does not allow you to speak, we will not give them the money. It’s that simple.”

I could cite many more examples, but these should be enough to establish that there is a wholesale attack under way on the academy that has now taken the form of the defense of free speech. The attack antedates the Trump administration by many years, but it has intensified since his election. The invitation to so-called controversial speakers (among them media hacks like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter) is part of the plan to expose college campuses as “islands of totalitarianism,” in the words of Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. These groups are funded by deep-pocketed conservative foundations (Amway, Koch, Heritage, Bradley, Goldwater) that not only want to do away with the kind of critical thinking long associated with higher education, replacing it with vocational training, but also have a bigger agenda—the elimination, one after another, of institutions associated with promotion of the common good. The conflation of free speech and academic freedom is symptomatic of a more general process of privatization in which individual rights substitute for a notion of the common good.

The turn to privatization of entities once supported by federal, state, or municipal governments (prisons, hospitals, highway maintenance, utilities, schools) has been achieved by years of tax cuts that deprive those governments of the money needed to support societal services (services once financed by income taxes and now paid for directly or indirectly by individuals). Privatization has been legitimized by the ideology referred to as neoliberalism, which defines everything in terms of individuals and economic returns to them. I am suggesting that the conflation of free speech and academic freedom, with its emphasis on individual rights, is about the individualizing of education, and the denial of its importance as a collective enterprise for producing and transmitting the knowledge that sustains the common good. Wendy Brown, in her 2015 book Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution, puts it this way:

Knowledge is not sought for purposes apart from capital enhancement, whether that capital is human, corporate, or financial. It is not sought for developing the capacities of citizens, sustaining culture, knowing the world, or envisioning and crafting different ways of life in common. Rather, it is sought for “positive ROI”—return on investment—one of the leading metrics the Obama administration propose[d] to use in rating colleges for would-be consumers of higher education.

A recent poll suggests that there’s a political aspect to all of this. Respondents were asked whether they “felt the statement ‘government should fund higher education because it is good for society’ or ‘students should fund their own education because it is a personal benefit.’” Fully 76 percent of Democratic respondents backed the government support statement, compared with about 34 percent of Republicans. Just 13 percent of Democrats agreed that students should fund their educations (because it’s a personal benefit), compared with about 52 percent of Republicans. When education is defined as a “personal benefit” instead of a social good, knowledge becomes a political football, no longer subjected to standards of proof and intelligibility based on scientific and other scholarly norms.

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The politicization of knowledge has been long coming. The pieces have been put in place by Democratic and Republican administrations and at the state and national levels; it is as much an effect of neoliberal capitalism as it is of party politics—though the devolution that began under Ronald Reagan is being taken to its ultimate degradation by Donald Trump. Tax cuts are the key—income taxes, after all, are the concrete embodiment of our shared responsibility for the collective well-being. Cuts in taxes are a direct assault on the common good.

The tax cuts have led to dramatically decreased public funding for colleges and universities, and so to greater reliance on student tuition that has, in turn, led to an enormous increase in student debt. “Public higher education has undergone a financial and conceptual shift,” writes Chronicle of Higher Education journalist Scott Carlson. “Once an investment covered mostly by the state to produce a workforce and an informed citizenry, today it is more commonly shouldered by individuals and families, and described as a private benefit, a means to a credential and a job.” Carlson attributes some of this to sheer racism: “As the student population has diversified, the language that many people use to define the value of a college degree has shifted, from a public good to an individual one. Is that merely a coincidence?”

The cuts in funding have led to greater need for private support, accompanied by increased intervention in academic decision-making by wealthy donors; to the substitution of cheaper contingent employees for permanent, tenured faculty; to a widening gap between richer and poorer institutions (one that parallels the widening gap between rich and poor in the population at large); to the introduction of corporate management styles by academic administrators and boards of trustees and a consequent diminution of faculty participation in university governance; and to the substitution by university administrators of calculations of risk and quantitative measures of output for evaluations of the quality of ideas.

These corporate management styles have spawned an “assessment movement” to measure the impact of research and teaching in entirely quantitative terms. Most universities in the United States now have offices of academic assessment with teams of experts (very few of them academics) who collect data and who are available to help faculty develop appropriate “strategic plans,” especially for teaching. A national association of assessment professionals coordinates and standardizes these activities. At the University of Southern Maine, to take only one example, assessment officials refer to “a culture of evidence,” according to which “learning outcomes” are judged so that “programmatic adjustments may be made most effectively.”

Corporate management has also led to “partnerships” with industry: in return for their funding, some businesses get privileged access to and control of faculty research results. Others promise jobs to students who take the vocational courses they prescribe. A particularly poignant—and horrifying—example is Kingsborough Community College’s arrangement, which guarantees students who take the requisite courses what are touted as careers staffing call centers!

There’s a kind of paradox apparent in these developments. Individual free speech (erroneously taken to be synonymous with academic freedom) is praised as a first principle of academia, while risk management, quantitative assessment measures, and strategic plans consistently undermine the autonomy of scholarly and pedagogical practice—for faculty and students alike. 

All the noise about free speech on campus works to silence critics of these large structural developments; it is one more weapon in the campaign to erode public faith in the mission of higher education. There are other weapons as well: those that have tied increased tuition and student debt to mismanagement and fraud, to the notion that universities are responsible for social inequality, and to the representation of faculty as elitists, sheltered from public accountability by the dubious claim of academic freedom. Another, even more insidious eroding of the image of higher education, indeed of education in general, is Trump’s celebration of mediocrity—if not of know-nothingness—as a national virtue, embodied in the appointment of cabinet secretaries, judges, and heads of agencies who know nothing of the work for which they are presumed to be responsible. The degradation of the very notion of expertise and the knowledge upon which it based has everything to do with the abandonment of the idea of the common good.

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There is, of course, resistance to these changes, even as they sometimes feel like a steamroller irresistibly flattening us as it plows forward. The resistance has taken many forms including unionization of faculty and graduate students and protests of all kinds at many institutions over particular local issues—a good example comes from the work of students and faculty at George Mason University to expose the extent of Koch brothers’ control there. There are many studies and recommendations from a variety of educational associations, books, and articles denouncing the loss of belief in what Matthew Finkin and Robert Post call “the social good of advancing knowledge,” and organizations, such as AAUP, that define their mission as promoting the continuing value and importance of higher education as a contribution to the public good. Finkin and Post, in their 2009 book For the Common Good: Principles of Academic Freedom, refer to the fact that academic freedom “rests on a covenant struck between the university as an institution and the general public, not on a contract between particular scholars and the general public.”

To defend academic freedom is to defend the production and transmission of knowledge—the pursuit of truth—as a necessarily critical, open, unending process conducted with a certain discipline and rigor. John Dewey maintained that academic freedom must protect scholars whose work challenged “habits and modes of life to which people have accustomed themselves and with which the worth of life is bound up.” Critique is implicit in that comment. In a similar vein, Edward Said described intellectual discourse as “the freedom to be critical: criticism is intellectual life and, while the academic precinct contains a great deal in it, its spirit is intellectual and critical, and neither reverential nor patriotic.” But it’s not enough anymore to praise critical thinking as the teaching mission of the university and to call for academic freedom to protect it. We need to be defending the covenant upon which academic freedom rests: the importance of knowledge for the common good. Academic freedom is, after all, the privilege and protection afforded to scholars whose critical research and teaching lead to better and more just policies and laws, and to the training of a democratic citizenry able to know the difference between charlatans and serious leaders. The fight for academic freedom, therefore, cannot take place on the grounds of that freedom alone; without a concept of the common good, as Dewey and his fellow Progressives articulated it, academic freedom will not survive.

Those of us looking to articulate a notion of the common good for the twenty-first century—and of course that notion will not be exactly the same as it was for the Progressives—need academic freedom to protect the space of our critical inquiry. In turn, the survival of the concept and practice of academic freedom depends on our ability to come up with that articulation. The common good will not survive—and for that matter neither will individuals survive—without medical knowledge, knowledge of climate change, knowledge of history, knowledge of how structures of discrimination work at the economic, social, political, and psychic levels to perpetuate inequalities of race, gender, sex, and religion. It is academic freedom that protects the production and dissemination of that knowledge. It is that knowledge that nourishes and advances the common good. The future of the common good and of academic freedom are bound up together; the one cannot survive without the other. It is up to us to ensure their joint survival.

Joan W. Scott is professor emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. She is a long-standing member and former chair of the AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.