Academic Freedom, Incompetence, and the Problem with Liberal Discourse

October 01, 2020 / PSU-AAUP

Academe Blog

by J. Moufawad-Paul

October 1, 2020


Alain Badiou once remarked that philosophy was “democratic” insofar as anyone is capable of critical thinking, but “undemocratic” because the pursuit of truth is not the same as voting according to one’s subjective opinion. In my opinion, this position is the basis for critical thinking and critical scholarship––anyone is capable of critical thought, but opinions are not the same as truth and truth is not the result of a vote––along with the political-ethical injunction to speak truth to power. Such an understanding of critical scholarship is opposed to the dominant, liberal conception that imagines academia to be a debate club that should foster a “marketplace of ideas.” According to this understanding (of which, tellingly, the so-called hard sciences are largely exempt) universities should function like a Smithian conception of the free market: through rational debate where every position is allowed, true ideas will naturally become prominent whereas erroneous ideas will be weeded out.

And yet this classical liberal notion of the marketplace of ideas is wrong. It was a faulty analogy (ideas are not identical to market commodities), and the model itself is also wrong––people still mass purchase shitty commodities and no “invisible hand” has resulted in a general equilibrium. Empirically speaking, no matter how many times false positions are thoroughly demonstrated to be false they continue to persist and push their way into academia (i.e. Murray’s racist “bell curve” thesis). Social-historical struggles lurk beneath scholarly practice. Moreover, a liberal conception of academic freedom invariably benefits a conservative and reactionary conception of scholarship that is an elitist reversal of the axiom I adapted above. That is, academia is “undemocratic” in the sense that only some very clever and important people are capable of being academics (meaning, usually, cis and able-bodied white men), while being simultaneously “democratic” in that truth is whatever consensus these privileged interlocuters and their followers decide upon. Reactionary scholars who implicitly or explicitly subscribe to this position often assert, like religious fundamentalists, that they are in fact defending Truth and denounce challenges to their absolutism by calling those challenges “postmodernism.” (Jordan Peterson, for example, likes to play this game.) In fact, they have no intention of examining rigorous scholarship that challenges their presumptions. They are instead devoted to enforcing conceptions of reality that reproduce dominant social power. Hence Trump’s 1776 Unites project: intended, against serious historical scholarship, to re-entrench dominant tropes of US settler-capitalist ideology by suppressing decades of rigorous historical work.

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