Training for the Contemplative Life

Quick, who do you think wrote the following?

To use the classroom . . . as a sort of ersatz political platform on which to mount an offensive against social ills out there is, in my opinion, deeply irresponsible and cowardly. Just as irresponsible is a hyperbolic rhetoric for critical analysis that pretends to be dealing with political issues but which remains a narcissistic exercise in posturing and mock seriousness.

If you answered “Edward Said,” chances are you have already read Daniel Gordon’s indispensable new history of academic freedom. You won’t have read those words anywhere else, because Gordon was the one who retrieved from the Columbia University Archives the unpublished paper where the quotation appears. That circumstance, in a way, illustrates Gordon’s main point in his book. In a landscape echoing with hyperpartisan thunders over the politicization of the classroom, neither the tribes of the left nor the right have any interest in citing the most-cited authority of post-colonial theory of the last forty years.

The left doesn’t want to admit that the author of Orientalism (1978) strained to keep politics out of the classroom. The right can’t imagine that a famous theorist of the radical left cared enough for the traditional study of literature that he had no reservations at all about teaching the traditional canon, the “great books of literature” (Said’s expression), to his students in Columbia’s required “Literature Humanities” core course. Both sides are too busy scoring points to pay careful attention to the various meanings academic freedom has had in the last hundred years and the role those meanings have played as political circumstances have evolved from decade to decade.

Gordon’s aim in his brief but deeply researched collection of case studies is to illustrate key debates about academic freedom since the concept was first deployed by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. His approach differs from the seminal history of academic freedom by Richard Hofstadter and William P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (1955), a Whiggish narrative of how academic freedom triumphed over religious obscurantism. He admires Stanley Fish’s Versions of Academic Freedom: From Professionalism to Revolution (2014) for its analytical rigor, but faults him for siding in too partisan a way with one particular version of academic freedom, namely, a version that makes a strong distinction between speech that is academic and speech that is political. Gordon clearly sympathizes with Fish, but his stance is like that of ancient Academic Skeptics:  he doesn’t think the debate over academic freedom can ever be settled but he wants it to go on anyway. We should at least understand it, he suggests, before issuing ill-informed manifestos. Understanding its history will lower the decibel level and show both sides that each has a stake in maintaining standards of impartiality in academic debates. So much, I think, is admirable, if difficult.

Gordon doesn’t want to take sides because he has a scrupulous—perhaps overly scrupulous—view of what is demanded by professional standards of impartiality in his own field of intellectual history. Even when it comes to the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement, whose partisan bigotry against Israel he clearly detests, he feels it necessary to point out the weaknesses in the arguments used against the BDS movement by defenders of Israel. He points out contradictions on the BDS side too, for example its “anti-normalization” project to treat Israel as a pariah state and a paradigm of global injustice, which entails prohibiting the possibility of dialogue between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces. So violence or manufactured consent are the only solutions? But here again, Gordon avoids making right-versus-wrong judgments in favor of “explaining the intricacy of disagreements.”

What Gordon most deplores is the loss of a middle ground since the early 2000s, when the political advocacy of figures like David Horowitz and Cary Nelson (then president of the AAUP) turned the middle ground into a free-fire zone. In the 1990s, as he shows in detail, there were still many academics on the left who were able to hold high-level, nuanced debates about the various versions of academic freedom then in circulation. Few were ready to condemn those who wanted politics kept out of the classroom. The version of academic freedom promoted by the radical Marxist Angela Davis, to whose case Gordon devotes his first chapter, had not yet taken hold.

Angela Davis was a doctoral student of Herbert Marcuse, and she applied his concept of “repressive tolerance” to academic freedom, producing the version of it that is now regnant throughout the woke academy. Academic freedom for her was the freedom to condemn various forms of oppression engaged in by the dominant capitalist and racist culture. Gordon quotes an account (1969) in the Los Angeles Times of one of the speeches that got Davis fired by the Regents of the University of California:

The proper use of the classroom, she said, is to “unveil those who perpetuate suffering” and to “unmask the predominant ideas for what they are.” If no positive solutions are presented to students, “academic freedom is a real farce,” she said . . . The way to test the validity of “bourgeois democratic concepts” such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of thought is to test their application to suppressed peoples, Davis said . . . “We have to fight these proponents of selective democracy and expose the limits of bourgeois democracy,” Miss Davis said.

In the 1990s the academic left wanted to avoid the “chilling effect” of prohibiting someone like Angela Davis from speaking, but it did not yet want to interfere with professional speech in the interests of upholding political dogma. It is only in the last decade that the speech being chilled became speech that departed from left-political orthodoxy. And it is only since 2020 that university administrators have taken heterodox speech out of the refrigerator and put it into the freezer. Now, failure to agree with the opinions voiced by Angela Davis a half-century ago can get you fired, and an insufficiently vocal adherence to these ideas will bar you from even being interviewed on many campuses.

The solution to politicization from the left is not politicization from the right, but reasserting the higher value of the contemplative life.

A significant change which Gordon’s book repeatedly highlights is the growing confusion since the 1960s between academic freedom and free speech. Academic freedom as traditionally understood invoked responsibilities as well as rights and was concerned with the public perception of academic communities. The AAUP’s 1915 “General Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” stated,

since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest of the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim.

In 1940 the AAUP’s “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” read in part,

As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution

The dominant ethos of academe formerly discouraged political partisanship, encouraged restraint and truthfulness, and enjoined respect for the opinions of others. It justified academic freedom as necessary for the advancement of knowledge. The AAUP’s more recent pronouncements on academic freedom, by contrast, emphasize the right of radical professors to sound off on any subject whatsoever, no matter how extreme their views, and whether or not they know anything about the subject.

My own sense—to depart from Gordon’s self-imposed stance of impartial description—is that more is at stake here than maintaining a distinction between academic and political speech, important though that is. What we face is a loss of the contemplative life. That old expression, of Aristotelian provenance, is not much used today, and that is no accident. Most moderns—not just Marxists—are materialists in the metaphysical sense: they deny the existence of the spiritual, using the word only metaphorically, if at all. If everything is material, it becomes difficult to maintain a hierarchy among ways of life and types of intellectual activity. Push-pin is as good as poetry; the contemplative life is no better, and maybe worse, than the active. Older academic communities had enough residual sense of the superior value of certain kinds of study that they were not willing to subordinate the pursuit of knowledge to politics. The first question in politics is always “what should be considered political?” and traditional academics understood that it was necessary to guarantee a realm of freedom from politics so that science and scholarship could flourish. That is what academic freedom originally meant, and that meaning must predominate once again if universities are to recover their true purpose.

The solution to politicization from the left is not politicization from the right, but reasserting the higher value of the contemplative life. If everything is political, we inevitably lose a sense of the intrinsic importance of academic disciplines and the search for truth. The behavior of some on the left, corrupted as they are by a totalizing politics, shows that they no longer think the disciplines they have been trained and paid to teach are all that important. For them, if it is a choice between firing students up with the political message of the moment or taking the trouble to teach them to love and understand literature and the arts—or showing them how to think like historians, scientists, doctors, and lawyers—they will go with the political message every time. They either can’t or won’t restrain themselves and put their students’ intellectual and human development before the satisfactions they receive from virtue-signaling and political grandstanding.

Serious study of the humanities, the sciences, law and medicine is much harder, much more time-consuming, and ultimately much more rewarding than faux-advocacy of the latest political fashions. It’s easy to inflame your students’ political passions; it’s hard to impart to them a life-long fascination with a subject outside their normal experience. You can summarize the leading ideas of Gramsci or the latest “cultural studies” fad in a few sentences. Making your students “smart” in that superficial way isn’t hard. In fact, mimicking their professors’ politics doesn’t make students smart: ideology always makes you stupid.

Learning to think like an historian or a lawyer or a scientist is hard. It takes years and sometimes decades. For young people to spend four years of their lives at university is a unique, precious opportunity. It’s an experience most of them will have only once. For professors or administrators to occupy their students’ attention with the garbage of political activism comes close to committing an act of fraud. The university offered its prospective students the chance to learn about the sciences or to study the priceless heritage of the past and instead has allowed them—indeed, encouraged them—to consume a mess of pottage.

The situation in academe today is not going to improve until there arises widespread moral revulsion against the university presidents, administrators, and trustees who allow this fraud to continue. The members of the academic community who think that encouraging activism is a mark of institutional virtue will have to be replaced by people who know and care about the real telos of the university. University administrators who refuse to show restraint in addressing the political questions of the day will have to be recognized for what they are: cowardly time-servers and traitors to the life of the mind. The real mission of the university is too important to be left to those who don’t care about it.