Knocking Out Speech Codes, Keeping Everything Else?

Last weekend’s National Association of Scholars conference saw an encouraging commitment against speech codes by Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors. Prompted by questions from Anne Neal of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni and from a reporter, Nelson stated “I want to knock out speech codes.” The AAUP is publicly opposed to speech codes, dating from a 1994 statement, yet it’s difficult to find any public statements on the topic, or any concrete cases of their objection to the suppression of free speech since. Nelson’s personal opposition to speech codes is well-documented; he is a public supporter of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and praised their work last weekend. Hopefully this will prove one area of fruitful collaboration, for, as Nelson’s other remarks at the conference made clear, there is extraordinarily little about which he and critics of the professoriate can agree.
Nelson appeared in a debate with Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, on “The Meaning of Academic Freedom.” While rejecting speech codes and acknowledging the political risks of faculty hiring, there was no mistaking him for a sympathetic party. He derided David Horowitz’s “scorched earth slander” and denounced the American Association of Trustees and Alumni’s “How Many Ward Churchills” report as “crude yellow journalism.” He likened dealing with the NAS to dealing with “a claque of Iranian mullahs.” Not least of all, he referred to their attention to professorial misconduct as an “Orwellian wild goose chase.” And, if you can imagine, it was almost worse to hear the practical details of his views.
The debate showcased the sharp disagreements in the AAUP and NAS conceptions of academic freedom that are no doubt familiar to any reader of the AAUP’s “Freedom in the Classroom” statement, or of the subsequent NAS critique. The AAUP doesn’t regard professorial conduct as epidemic and insists that professional and university structures are sufficient to handle any real problems. The NAS finds the AAUP’s almost-rote invocation of disciplinary consensus-as-truth inadequate and its disinterest in professorial proselytizing inadequate. We all know this. It was far more interesting to hear some common arguments actively contested.


There was a seemingly obligatory elision of the NAS critique on Nelson’s part as he asserted the relevance of politics to his own instruction of modern poetry, citing Langston Hughes as a model. This might seem mildly ridiculous if the AAUP hadn’t already set a spectacular precedent for resolutely refusing to acknowledge the substance of their critics’ actual charges about inappropriate classroom political speech – namely the George Eliot passage from “Freedom In the Classroom.” I don’t think, even among the fustiest National Association of Scholars members, I could have found a soul who would have objected to the discussion of 1920’s politics in relation to Langston Hughes’ poetry; no more than I could find a scold who’d look upon mention of Daniel Deronda as an unwarranted political intrusion onto classes on Middlemarch; both are particularly rank AAUP dodges. (You can play at the AAUP game too; if, say, accused of sexual harassment simply suggest that your detractors are trying to ban communication between genders; if upbraided for unprofessional language, intimate that your critics would line-edit Ulysses.)
Fortunately, the debate offered an opportunity for questions about real cases of professorial abuses to be put to Nelson. He neither approved nor condemned the actions of professors in several cases raised (Emily Brooker, Bill Felkner) yet admitted the possibility of error. Of course, he suggested that existing measures were entirely sufficient to deal with any problem – if there was one. No surprise here.
One of Nelson’s most revealing comments addressed political advocacy in instruction. He asserted that academic freedom protects “a lot” of political speech in the classroom, which, to his mind, would be balanced practically by opinions available to students outside of the classroom. In isolation, this sound ideal, but from a speaker who, in the same session, would neither condemn professorial political advocacy nor acknowledge the grip of pervasive ideologies on the university, it seems a formula more likely to stifle debate than to encourage it.
Another illuminating debate thread concerned the question of disciplines and their supposed ideological blinkering. Nelson argued that most problems NAS had with the ideological rigidity of the university were in fact merely quibbles with particular disciplines, and that the “selective criticism of disciplines [was] itself a thoroughly political effort.” He conceded that there can be “unreflective or even dogmatic” periods in disciplines but argued that they “can be self-healing.” Peter Wood’s response, which noted that the AAUP position is only “microns” from the proposition that truth is whatever a discipline defines it to be, was a useful reminder that the AAUP seems to have implicitly foreclosed on any grounds from which a criticism of a discipline could possibly be mounted (if Anthropology says it’s so, who are you to say no – certainly noone in the eyes of the AAUP).
Stanley Kurtz returned to the point in a later question, arguing that the development of ideological rigidity in a discipline indicated “more than an intellectual problem” and that the fact that one ideology had become dominant suggested that the internal means for self-correction (intellectual exchange) had also been abandoned. Nelson suggested that the larger faculty at schools where a department had become inflexible might institute change in that department; otherwise his maintenance that disciplinary consensus is the foundation of truth was firm. Of course, Nelson’s solution provides no redress at all against the congeries of like-minded and doctrinaire departments that cluster at most colleges (and collectively amount to massively inflexible and like-minded disciplines). Don’t hold your breath waiting for Women’s Studies, African-American Studies, and Latino Studies professors to rebuke an Anthropology department for ideological rigidity.
Cary Nelson offered an encouraging objection to speech codes. In nearly every other particular, he argued for more of the same: an academic mindset that misrepresents their critics, refuses to acknowledge a problem, and rejects any criticism as mere politics. There’s a very long way to go.

Anthony Paletta

Anthony Paletta is a freelance writer.

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