Academic Freedom As Oppression

kornA truly remarkable essay, penned by one Sandra Y.L. Korn (who describes herself as “a joint history of science and studies of women, gender and sexuality concentrator,” whatever that means), appeared in The Harvard Crimson on Tuesday: “The Doctrine of Academic Freedom: Let’s give up on academic freedom in favor of justice.”

Ms. Korn’s argument is symptomatic of the reflexively totalitarian mindset of the Left; the essay reads like The Onion channeling Herbert Marcuse For Dummies, but her unintentional self-parody provides a valuable glimpse into the Leftist worldview. (Scratch a Leftist, find a totalitarian.)

The piece begins:

In July 1971, Harvard psychology professor Richard J. Herrnstein penned an article for Atlantic Monthly titled “I.Q.” in which he endorsed the theories of UC Berkeley psychologist Arthur Jensen, who had claimed that intelligence is almost entirely hereditary and varies by race. Herrnstein further argued that because intelligence was hereditary, social programs intended to establish a more egalitarian society were futile—he wrote that “social standing [is] based to some extent on inherited differences among people.”

Alas, the link that the author provides to the cited article is a three-paragraph excerpt. One would think that, if Ms. Korn wanted to hang her rhetorical hat on one article (from 1971, no less), she would have provided a bit more context than an excerpt where the quote she references does not appear–and which might have given more context to Herrnstein’s argument.

Since The New York Times notes (in his obituary) that “Dr. Herrnstein expanded his views” in additional books, perhaps those books deserved passing mention. But since Ms. Korn merely aims to frame Herrnstein as a racist, unworthy of being heard in academe, it should be noted that he “was regarded with respect because ‘he understood and honored data,’ said Dr. Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard. Dr. Herrnstein was chairman of the Harvard psychology department from 1967 to 1971 and editor of The Psychological Bulletin from 1975 to 1981.”

And if we’re going to cherry-pick quotes, here’s an interesting one:

Just as with The Bell Curve, only a small portion of Herrnstein’s 1971 article dealt with differences among groups, and only a portion of that portion dealt with possible genetic influences on those differences; and, just as with The Bell Curve, these were the passages that received the greatest attention. In his article, Herrnstein concluded that “although there are scraps of evidence for a genetic component in the black-white difference, the overwhelming case is for believing that American blacks have been at an environmental disadvantage” (emphasis added).

But I digress. The question is not whether Herrnstein became an object of controversy; he did. The remarkable subtext of Korn’s essay is that being controversial is, in itself, sufficient cause to be cast out of academia, in the interest of “justice.”

Political Graphics book (source)Ms. Korn continues:

When he returned to campus for fall semester 1971, Herrnstein was met by angry student activists. Harvard-Radcliffe Students for a Democratic Society protested his introductory psychology class with a bullhorn and leaflets. They tied up Herrnstein’s lectures with pointed questions about scientific racism. SDS even called for Harvard to fire Herrnstein, along with another of his colleagues, sociologist Christopher Jencks.

I suppose Ms. Korn thinks this was all just swell–to drown out the voices of academics (and anybody else) when pampered Ivy League Stalinists like the SDS disapproved of what they had to say. Her nostalgic envy for that time is palpable.

Herrnstein told The Crimson, “The attacks on me have not bothered me personally… What bothers me is this: Something has happened at Harvard this year that makes it hazardous for a professor to teach certain kinds of views.” This, Herrnstein seems not to have understood, was precisely the goal of the SDS activists—they wanted to make the “certain kinds of views” they deemed racist and classist unwelcome on Harvard’s campus.

Poor Dr. Herrnstein, who “had been on the left for much of his life and liked to brag that he knew more labor songs than his SDS attackers did,” must have been quite surprised to be deemed a “racist and classist.”

Now it gets really interesting (emphasis added).

Harvard’s deans were also unhappy. They expressed concerns about student activists’ “interference with the academic freedom and right to speak of a member of the Harvard faculty.” Did SDS activists at Harvard infringe on Herrnstein’s academic freedom? The answer might be that yes, they did—but that’s not the most important question to ask. Student and faculty obsession with the doctrine of “academic freedom” often seems to bump against something I think much more important: academic justice.

Ah. Well, OK, maybe SDS thugs did wage war on academic freedom (nice “air quotes”), but so what? We’ve got bigger fish to fry here, people.

In its oft-cited Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, the American Association of University Professors declares that “Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” In principle, this policy seems sound: It would not do for academics to have their research restricted by the political whims of the moment.

Or would it?

(You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)

Yet the liberal obsession with “academic freedom” seems a bit misplaced to me. After all, no one ever has “full freedom” in research and publication. Which research proposals receive funding and what papers are accepted for publication are always contingent on political priorities. The words used to articulate a research question can have implications for its outcome. No academic question is ever “free” from political realities. If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of “academic freedom”?

And so, dear reader, “academic freedom” is largely an illusion; an amorphous abstraction with no real meaning. So why not embrace an even more amorphous, unreal abstraction called “academic justice”?

(And by the way, “heterosexism” gives me a bad case of the giggles; as does the assertion of a “liberal obsession with ‘academic freedom'”–unless Ms. Korn is reverting to a more classical definition of liberalism.)

Instead, I would like to propose a more rigorous standard: one of “academic justice.” When an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.

A “more rigorous standard”? Rigorous in what sense? In what way did Herrnstein’s research promote or justify “oppression”? Are we to reflexively condemn concrete, empirical data that puts the lie to the airy, politically-correct presumptions of the hard-Left? And who constitutes the “academic community”? Neo-Stalinist “activists,” but not tenured, published, respected academics?

The power to enforce academic justice comes from students, faculty, and workers organizing together to make our universities look as we want them to do. Two years ago, when former summer school instructor Subramanian Swamy published hateful commentary about Muslims in India, the Harvard community organized to ensure that he would not return to teach on campus. I consider that sort of organizing both appropriate and commendable. Perhaps it should even be applied more broadly. Does Government Professor Harvey Mansfield have the legal right to publish a book in which he claims that “to resist rape a woman needs … a certain ladylike modesty?” Probably. Do I think he should do that? No, and I would happily organize with other feminists on campus to stop him from publishing further sexist commentary under the authority of a Harvard faculty position. “Academic freedom” might permit such an offensive view of rape to be published; academic justice would not.

Subramanian Swamy’s article is here. I won’t defend it (at least the more inflammatory aspects of the piece), but simply ask whether an “academic community” committed to “academic justice” would have condemned an Islamist making similar arguments. The answer is fairly obvious: It all depends on whose political ox is gored, etc.

But it’s an Olympic-sized leap from Subramanian Swamy to Harvey Mansfield. The context of Mansfield’s remarks was a critique of radical Marxist feminist Shulamith Firestone. Here is the paragraph from which the cherry-picked quote is taken (emphasis added to highlight the cherry-picking):

Of course, men at their worst, as Firestone conceives them, are not really at their worst. Somehow her men are led by sexual appetite alone and do not commit acts of violence against women. Perhaps they do not need to if women do not feel any modesty and are never in the mood to resist. Resistance, after all, would imply that a woman is being choosy and is committing the error of “sex privatization.” Later feminists certainly take notice of male violence and rail against rape, but that stance, while more realistic, doesn’t solve the problem. To resist rape a woman needs more than martial arts and more than the police; she needs a certain ladylike modesty enabling her to take offense at unwanted encroachment. How dare you! But only a woman can be a lady, and the feminists have deconstructed “woman” because they think it is a product fashioned by men. According to them, being independent from men requires women to embrace the extreme of abandoning any difference between women and men. Becoming manlike is a strange way of proving you are independent of men (ladylike would seem to be a better way). But from the beginning, the desire for independence is compromised when you pursue it with a view to men. The desire to be independent of men leaves you still in the grip of men. This will show them! We’ll refuse to be women. In response one may say that women and men have this in common–they are happier and more attractive when they live for the sake of something above themselves on which, in a sense, they depend. That something might be making a family together, a task that creates something independent. Being independent is not just sitting there without a commitment to other human beings but doing something with them so as to be entitled to the respect of leading a useful life.

That hardly seems a valid reason to be cast out of Harvard, unless one is a radical Marxist feminist, fairly “obsessed” (two can play at the air quotes game) with hearing only that with which one agrees.

And now, on to The Jews! (emphasis added):

Over winter break, Harvard published a statement responding to the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions until Israel ends its occupation of Palestine. Much of the conversation around this academic boycott has focused on academic freedom. Opponents of the boycott claim that it restricts the freedom of Israeli academics or interrupts the “free flow of ideas.” Proponents of the boycott often argue that the boycott is intended to, in the end, increase, not restrict, academic freedom—the ASA points out that “there is no effective or substantive academic freedom for Palestinian students and scholars under conditions of Israeli occupation.”

The temptation to invoke Orwell in this instance is positively overwhelming.

Obviously we must have no dissent from the self-evident proposition that Israel is the most oppressive regime on the face of the earth. This is an article of faith on the Left, and they will brook no disagreement with that precept in the name of mere “academic freedom.” And that, in turn, will make us all more free.


In this case, discourse about “academic freedom” obscures what should fundamentally be a political argument. Those defending the academic boycott should use a more rigorous standard. The ASA, like three other academic associations, decided to boycott out of a sense of social justice, responding to a call by Palestinian civil society organizations for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions until Israel ends its occupation of Palestine. People on the right opposed to boycotts can play the “freedom” game, calling for economic freedom to buy any product or academic freedom to associate with any institution. Only those who care about justice can take the moral upper hand.

If you can make sense of the paragraph above, please let me know. I can’t. It has to do with only the Left caring about justice, I believe. But don’t quote me.

It is tempting to decry frustrating restrictions on academic research as violations of academic freedom. Yet I would encourage student and worker organizers to instead use a framework of justice. After all, if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.

Yes, I am indeed tempted to consider restrictions on academic research as attacks on academic freedom. The temptation to do so is so great, in fact, that I shall yield to it.

Shorter Sandra Y.L. Korn: Freedom is oppressive. I suppose that, for someone so firmly in the grip of the Leftist mindset, that is very true.


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