Worldliness and Freedom in the Academy

Academic and intellectual freedom are not above material considerations.
By Sam Popowich

Worldliness—by which I mean at a more precise cultural level that all texts and all representations were in the world and subject to its numerous heterogeneous realities—assured contamination and involvement, since in all cases the history and presence of various other groups and individuals made it impossible for anyone to be free of the conditions of material existence.

—Edward W. Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism

In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, a politics of right-wing “strongman populism” developed through the 2010 election of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012, the election of Donald Trump in 2016, and the Brexit referendum of the same year, in which right-wing populists like Nigel Farage and future British prime minister Boris Johnson led the victorious “Leave” side. In this political climate, a new iteration of the perennial culture wars exploded in North America. The emboldened Right in the United States and Canada began flexing its muscles on library boards, in state and provincial legislatures, and on college and university campuses.

Individual freedom is the slogan of this populist politics. In the context of police oppression of Black, Indigenous, migrant, and other marginalized peoples, the Right has decried “wokeness,” “cancel culture,” and the deplatforming of figures like Milo Yiannopoulos, all in the name of freedom of speech or intellectual freedom. In Canada, conservative governments tried to force universities to adopt the “Chicago principles,” based on the University of Chicago’s 2014 Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression, and in the United Kingdom, they introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill) in 2021. Conservative governments claimed to be helping higher education institutions pursue what the Chicago principles describe as their “overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate and deliberation among all members of [a] University’s community.” In the words of the British government, the Higher Education Bill was intended to “require universities and colleges . . . to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing.’”

But in this understanding, intellectual freedom, far from being a pure and uncontaminated foundational principle, is in fact a political tool or weapon. At the same time that some right-wing professors have claimed that their academic freedom is being infringed by some mythical left-wing agenda, right-wing legislatures and a number of aligned college and university administrations have tried to prevent the teaching of critical race theory (a label indiscriminately applied to any lessons about historic racial injustice) or “cultural Marxism” (an antisemitic dog whistle) and right-leaning municipal boards have tried to purge library collections of LGBTQIA+ and antiracist materials. In Canada and the United States, primary and secondary school teachers are pressured to present a sanitized version of settler-colonial history, while the right-leaning US Supreme Court has launched an all-out assault on women’s bodily autonomy. 

Cultural and Class Struggles

Culture wars around these issues are nothing new. In a 1989 article, “Education as Socialization and Individualization,” philosopher Richard Rorty discussed what he considered a common-sense compromise in American education: the Right controlled primary and secondary education in order to socialize students into the truths and values necessary for good citizenship, while the Left controlled postsecondary education in order to teach students how to break free from received wisdom and to develop themselves as individuals. Rorty saw this division as one between educating for truth and educating for freedom (presumably, in this view, the Right’s problem with teaching students about slavery or same-sex relationships is that in some sense they are “untrue”). Debates and controversies over curricula, free speech, library collections, and platforms arose, Rorty thought, when Right and Left encroached on each other’s proper sphere of influence.

From this perspective, recent controversies over the same issues across Canada and the United States could be understood as a result of Right and Left trying to expand beyond their “natural” spheres. Right-wing attempts to expunge critical race theory from colleges and universities or LGBTQIA+ and antiracist books from library collections are simply a reaction to left-wing infiltration of the sphere of empirical facts and common-sense truths. On college and university campuses, the Left is likewise reacting to an attempt by an emboldened Right to extend its influence into higher education.

Rorty’s view is schematic to the point of caricature. Not only are all levels of education involved in both socialization and individualization, but Rorty would, I think, have been concerned to see the Right abandon its adherence to facts and truth and the Left reject the Romantic individualism of Rousseau and Marx. But Rorty’s Right and Left are really the right and left wings of liberalism, rather than the far-right populism we have today or the far-left bogeymen of contemporary right-wing fever dreams. By the same token, while Rorty develops a convenient shorthand for the balance of power in North American education, he does no one any favors by repeating the old canard that postsecondary education is somehow dominated by the Left.

So, while Rorty’s article is instructive on political tensions within academia, it misses an important element that helps distinguish the current period of culture wars from previous ones. In 1989, faculty and academic librarian positions were still “good jobs,” offering job security in the form of tenure and autonomy in the form of academic freedom, both of which provided an element of stability. However, over the past forty years, as neoliberalism has made institutions of higher education into corporate-like operations, faculty members and librarians have become increasingly proletarianized. This development adds a new dimension to the struggles over education, as faculty members and librarians can no longer engage in their work or in debates about it from a position of stable employment. Now they struggle, both rhetorically and materially, in conditions of increasing precarity. Not only are there more and more contingent faculty positions, but tenure itself is under attack in various US states and Canadian provinces. In the United States, recent challenges to tenure are framed as Republican attempts to control the curriculum, and this is certainly part of the story, but tenure—like nonvocational education—was doomed the moment neoliberalism began to turn faculty members and librarians into employees and students into customers.

Proletarianized faculty members and librarians are now subject to the same pressures faced by all other employees: the downward pressure on wages, the slashing of benefits, job precarity, and piecework, to name a few. All of these pressures serve the bottom line of the corporatized university. But they also affect how faculty members and librarians think about intellectual and academic freedom. When faculty members and librarians constituted a privileged class of workers whose material conditions were at least adequately met, intellectual and academic freedom were positioned above the tawdry realities of labor relations. They operated as what William James in Pragmatism called “solving names,” rhetorically deployed to stop argument and debate by providing a limit to what can be questioned or challenged. As the proletarianization of faculty members and librarians continues, however, a relatively autonomous “culture war” becomes wholly identified with class war. In order to properly confront this change, we have to displace the metaphysical notions of academic and intellectual freedom, the idea that they somehow transcend human realities like power, and accept what Edward Said calls “worldliness,” the fact that supposedly pure and abstract concepts are always implicated in the “sordid” realities of power and material life.

The worldliness of academic labor today makes it impossible to ignore the material elements of cultural struggle. In the past, academics and librarians could see culture wars as “unworldly,” insulated from the material realities implicated in cultural and intellectual work. Today’s culture wars cannot be understood independently of material struggle, making them appear different from previous iterations. The corporatization of higher education that has taken place over the past forty years has made college and university administrations nothing but corporate managers and has removed many of the differences between faculty members and librarians and less-privileged classes of workers. Academics and librarians, however, have been slow to recognize this change and respond accordingly. Unionization efforts among graduate students are met at times with faculty calls to think about being a graduate student not as a job but as a vocation, while faculty members continue to insist on the role of shared governance even as administrations simply ignore it. (The idea of academia as a mission or calling conforms to what librarian Fobazi Ettarh called “vocational awe” in her 2018 article “Lies We Tell Ourselves.”) Far from still being members of a “professional managerial class” or a “labor aristocracy,” faculty members and librarians must begin to face up to the uncomfortable fact of their proletarianization.

The dualism of cultural and material concerns—Said’s worldliness—can be seen in some of the defenses of tenure. In April 2022, criticizing Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick’s proposal to abolish tenure, a contributor to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel, wrote, “Tenure is absolutely essential to higher education, not only to protect professors, but to ensure classrooms can foster productive debates and are free from external censorship. It’s pivotal for students and professors alike, and should not be abridged by attempts to control academic curriculum. Simply put, tenure is a status awarded to professors and academics that serves to establish job security in their positions. Tenured professors cannot be terminated, unless for extraordinary circumstances.” Tenure here is both a metaphysical guarantor of academic freedom and a protection from the precarity suffered by other workers. It is both a cultural and an economic signifier, playing a cultural and an economic role. At the time Rorty was writing, it was just possible to separate the class struggle from the cultural one. This is true no longer.

But class struggle is also cultural, and it also takes into account identities and positionalities other than class. The sociologist Stuart Hall developed an important theory of authoritarian populism in the 1980s and analyzed the ways capitalism could combine race, class, gender, and other identities into a complex unity capable of absorbing and resisting attempts at social improvement. Struggles against this process are not temporary aberrations but are endemic to what Hall called “societies structured in dominance.”

For Hall, race and gender are two clear ways capital continues to reproduce the class relations of capitalist society. Capital, in Hall’s view, dominates the working class by leveraging divisions between identities, perpetuating racism and sexism and turning identity politics against itself. But another important difference that capital leverages is the creation of a privileged class of workers whose material conditions are better and who benefit from the structures of oppression that operate over other marginalized groups. This privileged class of workers is ideally (from the capitalist perspective) intersectional, as capital—in the form of corporate interests linked with university administrations—leverages diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives to bring about a less diverse, less equitable, and more exclusionary society.

It would be easy enough to see tenure and academic freedom as this kind of privilege, something granted by capital to a particular section of workers as a way to foster strife and dissension and to fracture the working class. The attack on tenure could then be understood as not simply a characteristic of the current moment of cultural struggle but also the result of four decades of corporatization. And this view is not incorrect: the abolition of tenure is a way to reduce labor costs in an organization now operating on completely capitalist principles. The process that Marx calls subsumption requires that previously privileged classes of workers be proletarianized as the last drop of surplus value is extracted from fractions already designated as working class. Capitalist exploitation then moves on to previously protected fractions. But it would be a mistake to think that college and university administrations have all the agency in this situation—that having once granted academic freedom and tenure, they have all the power needed to take it away. 

This account misrepresents the history of tenure and academic freedom. While the concept of academic freedom was elaborated by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the early nineteenth century as part of his comprehensive philosophy of education, in North America academic freedom is deeply entwined with the rights of academic workers. The AAUP formed in 1915 in response to the firing of professors and instructors by university administrations, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers formed under similar circumstances in 1959. There has always been an element of materialism and solidarity in the notion of academic freedom—Said’s worldliness again—an element too easily erased when academic freedom is portrayed in its idealistic and individualistic form, divorced from material concerns.

Indeed, this is the mistake Rorty makes when he writes that “tenure and academic freedom are more than just union demands” but are instead vital to allow students to see “freedom enacted before their eyes by actual human beings.” To understand academic freedom as the academic form of free speech or free expression is to miss this vitally nonindividualistic and materialist context, what Rorty would call simply “solidarity.” But it is important from an ideological perspective to equate academic freedom—a practical response to interference by higher education administrators and donors—with the “purer,” “metaphysical” concepts of free speech and free expression.

Material Realities of Education

Perhaps paradoxically, the way to protect higher education from becoming nothing but job training, to ensure that it plays a role in the self-creation of students and remains educational rather than vocational, is to emphasize, leverage, and protect the materialist labor aspect of both tenure and academic freedom. Cultural and educational freedom first requires the satisfaction of material needs. As Bertolt Brecht noted in the Threepenny Opera, food comes first, then ethics. But what happens if we tarnish the idea of freedom with such worldly concerns as food and shelter?

Looking at the library equivalent to free speech and free expression, intellectual freedom, makes this problem clearer. Intellectual freedom is considered to be essential to democratic society, and part of the library’s mission is to ensure access to information, promote and facilitate unconstrained reading, and resist censorship. These noble parts of the library’s mission overshadow the more worldly requirements undergirding the realization of intellectual freedom: stable and affordable housing, support for physical and mental health, affordable day care, public transportation. To assume that these things will take care of themselves, that they don’t need to be addressed first, before any question of intellectual freedom can be tackled, is to see the world through a particular ideological lens, the lens of societies—like Canada and the United States—structured in dominance. This lens presumes that material concerns are already taken care of: everyone has housing, everyone has medical care, everyone has someone to look after their children (and therefore the leisure to participate in intellectual life), everyone has enough food, everyone has a car. If people do not have these things and are therefore unable to partake of intellectual freedoms, it must somehow be their own fault. Only by erasing or rejecting the material reality of most people’s day-to-day lives in this way can intellectual freedom be “purified” of its worldliness and made into a metaphysical symbol that libraries can use to narrate their own noble story.

In an academic context, the self-creation of students, their education, can never happen while their material needs are not being met. The class makeup of the North American college student body has—like its gender and racial makeup—changed dramatically over the last forty years. To continue to assume that students come from the same socioeconomic background as they did in the 1950s—middle-class affluence, leisure time, the nuclear family, a family doctor, and so forth—is as misguided as presuming that faculty members and librarians are removed from material struggles themselves. Only the wealthy can afford to see academia as a calling because only they do not have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or what happens when they can’t afford medication. Similarly, only those who can get to a library or afford private internet services can partake in library-supported intellectual freedom.

If we are serious about academic and intellectual freedom, then we cannot ignore the material realities of our students and library users. Just as we should no longer think of faculty members and academic librarians as anything but proletarians, we can no longer think of students and library users as solely made up of affluent middle-class suburbanites. The recovery of the labor history of tenure and academic freedom requires recognizing that there is nothing special about faculty members and librarians as workers: academia and librarianship are not vocations, missions, or callings. We continue to have enormous privileges compared with our colleagues and users, but this is more and more a question of degree rather than kind. More than the individualized version of freedom enacted daily before students that Rorty described, an intellectual freedom that means independent agency, it would be useful to adopt a communal conception of freedom, freedom produced by collective obligations. If we are to recognize and realize our solidarity with other, less privileged workers (including students), then we must reject the individual, idiosyncratic notion of freedom proper to liberalism—a notion faculty members and librarians have embraced for a very long time—and instead embrace a communal, shared freedom that owes its very existence to cooperation and collective life.

What this kind of solidarity will look like in practice is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, it is clear that it must reject any pure conception of academic or intellectual freedom, any understanding that might position those concepts as outside or above worldly considerations. It must recognize that power and oppression are always already in play and that there is no such thing as not taking a side. Struggling against the banning of queer or antiracist books, excluding transphobic or racist speakers from our spaces, cannot be done from a “neutral” perspective but must be done in solidarity with our queer, racialized, and trans colleagues, students, and library users. By the same token, as a public library colleague of mine in Winnipeg, the North American city with the highest proportion of Indigenous people, put it, there can be no intellectual freedom on stolen land. Academic and intellectual freedom are not above material considerations.

Sam Popowich is a librarian at the University of Winnipeg. He is the author of Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Librarianship: A Marxist Approach. His email address is [email protected].