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Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn on Academic Freedom

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by Julian 

Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship.  As he explained,

It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas  (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.

While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.

How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems.  Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.

By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.

Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had

always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.

From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost? 

American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?

Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.

Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom.  The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation.  If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,

I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.

Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history.  Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.

Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.  Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.

Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.


Written by Julian Nemeth

February 10, 2012 at 12:54

9 Responses

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  1. Besides general comments, I would also be interested to hear about people’s favorite academic books that also make an intervention into political debates or social struggles.


    February 10, 2012 at 13:12

  2. not a book yet, but I love this academic project and it’s deliberate insistence contemporary implications:

    Bronwen Everill

    February 10, 2012 at 13:25

  3. As you know, I side strongly with Fish on this debate. I specifically tell me students, “It’s great if you want to save the world, but not in my classroom.” As I’ve written in job applications, I think it would be utterly wrong for me, say, to impose my pro-choice views on a discussion of the history of women’s reproductive rights in America in a history classroom. They simply are not relevant. I think it’s fine to point out hypocrisy on either side of any debate, to judge historical actors by their own standards. But ideally I would like my students to have as little knowledge of my political views as possible, as least, based on my lectures and discussion sections. If they want to know my views, they can visit PhD Octopus.

    David Weinfeld

    February 10, 2012 at 13:33

  4. Julian wrote: “It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.”

    Totally. And I agree on the books presented. I hope to see lots more like them. The key is to be meticulous in one’s research in support of an argument.

    I for one am tired of the standard academic book that argues meticulously but is satisfied with mere ironical and paradoxical conclusions. It’s fine to see and identify complexity, but let’s not pretend that questions asked by historians whose lives are grounded in the present. These questions often (but not always) have political implications.

    I think what you resent, David, is shallowly argued bullshit masquerading (poorly) as academic discourse. BTW, the savvy students are getting your political views no matter how hard you avoid or hide them. One’s means of conducting critical discourse (i.e. method) often reveal one’s politics. …I say this with all due respect. – TL

    Tim Lacy

    February 10, 2012 at 17:59

  5. I think there may be a middle ground here. It’s far too much to ask academics to be even-handed about absolutely everything; I agree with Tim Lacy above that it comes out no matter what. But I also think that in terms of conversations, sufficient latitude (and tolerance, if that’s what it takes as well) be given to making sure everyone’s “in the room.” Where we get complaints from conservatives does not deal with what they say but how they’re made to feel about saying it. Leading discussions doesn’t have to be done perfectly, but it does have to be done with integrity and a sense of propriety. Students appreciate that.
    When it comes to scholarship, though, I think academics should be allowed to go where the research takes them in honest pursuit. Of course, there’s the issue of finding what you’re looking for in the first place, but then the market gets to determine whether professors have a sufficient point. It’s much more difficult to fight that external force, and reveals the genuineness of an approach.

    Mark Cebulski

    February 10, 2012 at 18:31

  6. […] “Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should ’save the world on their own time’. Just last week, he reiterated this point …” (more) […]

  7. […] Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Another look at academic freedom. […]

  8. Clarification: In my third para, I meant to write “…but let’s not pretend that THE questions asked by historians are NOT grounded in the present. …” …I hope that makes more sense. – TL

    Tim Lacy

    February 11, 2012 at 14:04

  9. I’m reminded of NYU’s Lawrence Mead in his 2010 article on Scholasticism in Political Science. ( In the same vein I remember Stephen Walt arguing at the time that academics tend to waste the protection afforded them by tenure when they spend their time asking increasingly narrow, inconsequential questions instead of orienting their work towards the questions we need academics to consider. Of course Walt plugged The Israel Lobby, however, insofar as this discussion is concerned I think Walt and Mearsheimer devote exactly the type of academic rigour that’s needed while engaging a politically contentious issue. Another recent work fitting the description is Banarjee and Duflo’s Poor Economics. Here they display an impeccable commitment to adding to the body of evidence regardless of whether the evidence fits the dominant narratives offered by previous scholarship. I agree with Mr. Lacy in that it’s one thing to identify complexity where it exists.. it’s another thing to use “complexity” as an excuse for sloppy and glib analysis. What we should expect from academics is a commitment to method, and a willingness to be persuaded by the evidence, not an ironclad commitment to what in the end will always be only a semblance of neutrality. I think the recent discussion over Charles Murray’s Coming Apart highlights what can happen when astute analysis is replaced by sentiment, but taking a side on a politically contentious issue isn’t always simply guided by sentiment. I think we have to work hard to recognize the difference.

    Michael Dedmon

    February 11, 2012 at 14:21

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