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Book review / Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom

Book review / Knowledge, Power, and Academic Freedom

Joan Wallach Scott

Joan Wallach Scott.
Columbia University Press, 2019; 184 pp;
ISBN: 978-0-231-19046-6.

By Robin Whitaker

When Joan Wallach Scott was ten, her father was suspended for refusing to cooperate with an investigation into communist activity in the public school system. In his defense, Samuel Wallach invoked fundamental principles. Having taught his students about their Constitutional freedoms as American citizens, “it would be a betrayal of everything I have been teaching to cooperate… in an investigation of a man’s opinions, political beliefs and private views.”

Although it failed to protect him — fired in 1953, he never taught again — Scott recounts that her father’s principled belief never faltered. Likewise, says Scott, the unrealized ideal is, paradoxically, what enlivens academic freedom as an ethical practice in Michel de Certeau’s sense: “it defines a distance between what is and what ought to be … a space where we have something to do.”

Scott’s US context informs her characteristically sophisticated defense of academic freedom. Early cases — catalysts for the 1915 creation of the American Association of University Professors — highlight its material conditions. In response to the persecution of critical scholars by those bankrolling their institutions, the AAUP declared governing boards “trustees for the public,” charged with protecting the professoriate’s work from incursions by the powerful. On academic matters, trustees must defer to the faculty’s expertise.

This formulation is premised on shielding knowledge from power for the public good. But as Scott’s experiences as a “critic embattled within her own field” indicate, disciplinary practice is no power-free zone. Labelling critique illegitimately “political” has often been a “weapon of the strong.” As Scott also notes, new forms of scholarship are inseparable from new kinds of scholars. The defense of “standards” can thereby function as a defense against “difference.”

Attempts to defend controversial scholars — Angela Davis, among others — on the basis of their citizenship rights to extramural political activity — as long as these don’t impinge on their university work — is the other side of this coin. What this formulation misses, says Scott, is “the idea that one’s sense of responsibility as a citizen could legitimately affect one’s scholarship.”

More recent challenges illustrate both the endurance of these tensions and the importance of context. Discussing Steven Salaita’s case, Scott cites Hank Reichman’s provocation that “incivility” may be “the new communism.” But she notes a key difference. McCarthyism targeted ideas and politics. Incivility targets affect.

Scott connects this shift to a corporatized academy absorbed with risk management, where students imagined as “buyers” are formally equal to the “sellers” of education and hence positioned to demand the product they want. The shift in emphasis from the structural bases of inequality to personal injury is depoliticizing. Combined with an expanded definition of harassment to include “words that ‘may be harmful or humiliating’,” it also leaves individual academics vulnerable, as Scott shows with a list of recent dismissal cases.

In a chapter on academic freedom and the rightwing weaponization of free speech, Scott warns against conflating the two. Rights to public expression must be respected, she says, but that does not mean equal respect for all opinions expressed. The latter requires reasoned judgment, best cultivated in situations of academic freedom, including the freedom to teach.

A culminating interview with Bill Moyers underscores the need to attend to the wider context of any attack on academic freedom. Moyers and Scott explore the historical conditions for the politics of resentment fuelling anti-intellectual assaults in the US today. That history, which has some Canadian parallels, includes Reagan-era assaults on class action as a basis for redress, anti-tax politics, and ever-increasing economic precarity and responsibilization, all of which erode belief in the common good and the role of government in administering it.

Scott ends by diagnosing academic freedom in the age of Trump as “under grave threat from many different directions,” and exhorts academics to work to keep the space of critical thinking “open and protected from the forces that would destroy it.” Scott’s long service on the AAUP Academic Freedom and Tenure committee might in turn inspire renewed commitment to organized academic labour, working for the material conditions of academic freedom for all academic staff, particularly those on the biting end of neoliberalism.

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Robin Whitaker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Memorial University.

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