U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Grafton on Cronon and Academic Freedom

There’s a blog post by Anthony Grafton over at the New York Review of Books website on academic freedom in light of the Cronon affair. He makes a lot of the usual points, but in the midst of his post he suddenly veers into a territory that I find welcome. While defending academic freedom, he also lays out a vision of academic responsibility that goes hand in hand with academic freedom and is necessary for the maintenance of academic freedom’s legitimacy. He says:

“Scholars and scientists, of course, have all the same rights as other citizens: they can enter debates, join political organizations and work for campaigns. But when they enter the public sphere in their special capacity as acknowledged professional experts, they bear special responsibilities: they’re not acting as ordinary citizens, nor as pundits who are ready to pronounce on anything. They should be real experts on the problems they attack. They should acknowledge their own fallibility and the provisional character of the knowledge they rely on. They should expect contradiction, both from other experts and from those whose interests they cross, and maintain civility amid the eldritch yips and guttural growls of American public debate. And the conclusions they put forward must be the ones that their expertise dictates, whether or not they find these pleasing. It’s a little bit like being a Raymond Chandler detective. You go out into the mean streets, armed only with knowledge and determination, knowing that you can easily be wrong, and grimly aware that your only reward for being right may be a blow on the head. It’s a great, quixotic part of the vocation of science and scholarship. That’s why universities have come to agree that honest public interventions are a legitimate part of academic work, and why they do their best to protect those who engage in them from personal and political attack.”

I was struck by this passage because Grafton hits a different note than I normally hear. Consider this passage from Felix Frankfurter in his concurring opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957):
“Progress in the natural sciences is not remotely confined to findings made in the laboratory. Insights into the mysteries of nature are born of hypothesis and speculation. The more so is this true in the pursuit of understanding in the groping endeavors of what are called the social sciences, the concern of which is man and society. The problems that are the respective preoccupations of anthropology, economics, law, psychology, sociology and related areas of scholarship are merely departmentalized dealing, by way of manageable division of analysis, with interpenetrating aspects of holistic perplexities. For society’s good – if understanding be an essential need of society – inquiries into these problems, speculations about them, stimulation in others of reflection upon them, must be left as unfettered as possible. Political power must abstain from intrusion into this activity of freedom, pursued in the interest of wise government and the people’s well-being, except for reasons that are exigent and obviously compelling. These pages need not be burdened with proof, based on the testimony of a cloud of impressive witnesses, of the dependence of a free society on free universities. This means the exclusion of governmental intervention in the intellectual life of a university. It matters little whether such intervention occurs avowedly or through action that inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor.”
Here Frankfurter states the issue somewhat differently than Grafton does. Academic freedom is freedom from governmental intrusion, Frankfurter says, allowing unfettering inquiry into the full range of existence without fear of political consequence. But many proponents of academic freedom argue that it entails the freedom to enter the public sphere to influence the workings of government, something implied by Frankfurter but never quite elaborated or explained. Grafton’s warning that academic responsibility requires that we limit our political interventions to those problems on which we are experts seems to be a necessary limitation to this vision of academic freedom. It is the only way that we can justify that freedom.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Timothy Burke, of Swarthmore College’s History Department, made similar observations at his blog Easily Distracted near the end of this March 29 post titled “Burning Down the House.” That piece, not surprisingly, is also linked to the “Cronon Affair.” – TL

  2. Great post, David!

    I was particularly delighted that, with Grafton’s Raymond Chandler analogy, you’ve managed to tie together our week of film noir blogging and our long-standing discussions of academic freedom and the state of academia today.

    We’re only a few steps away from a single post that simultaneously addresses everything of significance to this blog (is that what the kids call a singularity)?

  3. Thanks for that post. We are seeing in this culture now how difficult it is to carry out a democracy without a background of civil discourse. On our best days, we can be a role model for our students of someone who is trying to draw fact-based conclusions and who welcomes and verifies new facts.

  4. Thanks for the post, David. I think that we need a serious study of the history of academic freedom. While Hofstadter and Metzger did this in 1955, in the era of McCarthy, I hardly think that their book-although in many ways thorough-is the last word on the matter. A good starting point would be J. McKeen Cattell’s _University Control_ (1913). He was writing (compiling?) in response to the academic freedom controversies of the turn of the century, including Richard T. Ely’s trial at Wisconsin in 1894 and the 1900 firing of E.A. Ross at Stanford. Cattell and others at the time pointed out that scholars had a “public” role and that they had earned that status through their immersion within a field of expertise. The public would lose out if rich benefactors or demagogic politicians kept scholars from using that expertise to improve or advance society. However, such academic freedom (and tenure) advocates were cautious and stated that professors might not be able to say anything they wanted; indeed, some said that different tenure requirements or academic freedom standards might apply to teachers at small colleges (who were not necessarily experts in one field) as opposed to researchers at larger universities. What I write here is mostly from memory, but it might be a good starting point for discussion. In any case, I think it would be interesting to do a thorough study on the intellectual groundings of academic freedom, especially its transformation and implementation in the late Progressive Era.

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