Joan Scott, professor emerita in the School of Social Science at Princeton, has been arguing that the great threat on academic freedom comes not from the smothering blanket of political correctness or the violence-laced actions of left-wing protesters, but from the anti-intellectual right.
Scott’s interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “How the Right Weaponized Free Speech,” her article, “On Free Speech and Academic Freedom,” in the AAUP’s Journal of Academic Freedom; and her extended conversation with Bill Moyers “Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump,” and her upcoming AAUP chat on Facebook Live on January 26, “Faculty Under Attack,” all focus on the same theme. Stanley Kurtz replied to her Chronicle piece, which included a dramatically distorted account of the model legislation on academic freedom promoted by the Goldwater Institute. And I published a comment on Scott’s conversation with Moyers, in which she leveled some implausible accusations at conservatives.
No, Not Milo or Spencer
Scott is not such an eminence that her aggressive dismissal of conservative views is likely to sway many people. But her emeritus position at the Institute for Advanced Study gives her social standing above the ordinary crowd of progressives expressing their contempt for those who disagree. Scott is a feminist historian who came to prominence through books such as Gender and the Politics of History (1988); The Fantasy of Feminist History (2011); and Sex and Secularism (2017). She has a long and deep association with the AAUP, having served as chair of its Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure. Her interest in academic freedom is thus nothing new.
Professor Scott believes that academic freedom is under assault from an anti-intellectual right that hates academics because it fears “excellence, difference, and culture.” Conservatives have some sharp criticisms of the way universities are handling themselves these days, but none that I know of have expressed disapproval of “excellence,” hold “difference” in disapprobation, or quake on encountering “culture.” Indeed, conservatives are more often accused of elitism, precisely because they consider the pursuit of excellence the sine qua non of higher education. They uphold distinctions (“difference”) that the left prefers to flatten. And they are the standard bearers of traditional culture.
Scott’s Diffuse Anxiety
How could Scott have gone so wrong? There are, of course, anti-intellectual people everywhere in the political spectrum. If you choose to make some angry fool the emblem of all the views you disagree with, however, you will certainly miss the most important ideas espoused by the other side. Scott goes far wide of the mark when she invokes people such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos to characterize conservatives. She does better in invoking David Horowitz, but calling him someone “on the front lines of the anti-intellectual movement for years” is a smear. Horowitz is an agile thinker, a graceful writer, and a tireless defender of academic standards. He has been, to be sure, a pugnacious combatant in the culture wars as well, but “anti-intellectual?” Not hardly.
Scott singles out others by name as well for opprobrium: Betsy DeVos, Charles Murray, and Robert P. George among them. These three are exponents of very different ideas. Lumping them as part of a right-wing anti-intellectual movement suggests that Scott has allowed herself to be carried away by her partisanship. Something like that seems to have happened as well in her characterizations of the Goldwater model legislation that is being considered in several states. Scott seems to think the legislation would impose restrictions on what professors teach. As Kurtz pointed out in his rebuttal, the legislation does nothing of the kind. It calls for public universities to be “content neutral” when setting rules for public expression of views. There should be one set of rules that applies equally to all sides.
Scott’s excesses illuminate the self-understanding of the progressive professoriate, which needs to believe it faces a mad brute in order to fire up its martial vigor. The images she conjures, however, have no relation to the reality of America in 2018.
Academic freedom as Fig Leaf
In the America of 2017, left-wing mobs, some composed entirely of college students, used force to silence dissent. Progressive thugs have kept Milo Yiannopoulous from speaking at Berkeley, Charles Murray from speaking at Middlebury, Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna—and just this last October, Black Lives Matter prevented Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, from speaking at William and Mary. At Evergreen College in Washington state, left-wing students with sticks and baseball bats patrolled the campus with impunity.
The Evergreen case represents the extremist end (so far) of these extremities: mob rule pure and simple, condoned by a cowering college president. But progressive student-led shout-downs and disruptions occurred at more than two dozen colleges and universities last year. The few instances on record of disruptions by right-wing agitators, such as the attempt to shout down California Attorney General Xavier Becerra at Whittier College, were carried out by activists from outside the university.
The asymmetry of disruptions originating on the left and the right is not a matter of perception. It is a well-attested fact. Scott is engaged in a kind of revisionist history to assert otherwise.
College administrations and faculty have responded to this nationwide surge of violence at best with a slap on the wrist, and more frequently with statements that endorse the goals of the student mobs even as they officially disapprove of the means.
The administration and faculty presumably prefer the means promoted by Joan Scott: to use “academic freedom” as a fig leaf to peacefully exclude all dissenting views from campus. Student voices in the classroom; dissenting academics in articles and textbooks; dissenting would-be faculty up for hire or tenure; student organizations; students who escape a carefully delimited “free speech zone”; students who intrude into a “safe space”; students deemed by the voluntary thought police of a “Bias Response Team” to have said something offensive; invited speakers—all can be excluded by peaceful means, since academic freedom isn’t the same thing as freedom of speech.
But on this point, Scott’s argument draws on an important truth. Academic freedom and free speech are not the same things. Academic freedom is a self-created doctrine within higher education. What we usually mean by “free speech” are the expressive rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. In that sense, “academic freedom” is always up for grabs. It can be reinterpreted to suit any college or university that wants to go to the trouble of saying what it means now. So those who want to make of “academic freedom” a covenant to respect only politically correct opinions can indeed do so.
What Hillary Might Have Done
But, of course, there is a cost to Scott’s approach: it means forfeiting the respect of the general public to whom “academic freedom” connotes broad respect for differences of opinion, not revolutionary ardor for a single set of views.
America’s campuses have been turning into an ever-stricter archipelago of tyranny for a generation and more. The election of President Trump has served as an occasion for further demands to restrict freedom on campus—but there would have been something else if Clinton had been elected president. The only likely difference in that alternate history is that the Department of Education in a Clinton administration would have whole-heartedly supported the imposition of progressive conformity on campus.
Professor Scott feels that President Trump’s election brought her “diffuse anxiety; a sense of fear in response to an indeterminate threat; dread about what would come next, as day after day more draconian measures were announced.” Except for ideologues and the henchmen of the progressive left, every student, teacher, and administrator on campus has felt that way for decades. Professor Scott has spent her entire professional life in academia and never heard that anxious silence—or, I fear, considered how she has contributed to it.
That silence and that fear are what makes up the American university in 2018. The NAS will gladly continue to work with any ally to end that silence and that fear, and thereby to restore academic freedom. If Professor Scott truly wishes to defend academic freedom, she will join us.