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Academic Freedom Won’t Survive Carnival Act Universities

Generally a person is in her grave before the profane start dancing on it. Fresno State University Professor Randa Jarrar, by contrast, could not tarry an hour after the announcement of Barbara Bush’s death to tweet that the former First Lady—by all accounts a gracious woman and an honorable public servant—was “a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal,” so, while we’re at it, “[expletive] outta here with your nice words.” Having made the obligatory accusation of racism without evidence, Jarrar proceeded to say she was glad “the witch is dead,” wish the same to the rest of the Bush family, express her happiness that at least George W. Bush was grieving and, the coup de grâce, tweet the number of a suicide-prevention hotline as her own.

Advocates of campus free speech have rushed to Jarrar’s defense with the same relish with which they defend conservative voices, which shows their position is principled. It also shows its limits. Academic freedom, which entails privileges other professions are not accorded, itself needs an account.

Fresno State’s president, Joseph Castro, did not help when he said Jarrar’s tweet transcended “free speech” because it was “disrespectful.” His critics correctly noted speech does not have to be respectful to be free. But the real and more dangerous conflict is not simply the one between free speech and public outrage but rather the tension between public support for higher education and many universities’ abdication of their purpose.

Punishing Jarrar, a tenured professor who teaches creative writing, would martyr her professionally—a bad case that would make awful law. Fresno State may want to ask whether its students would be better served by creative-writing teachers who can manage adjectives more descriptive than “amazing” and verbs less vulgar than the f-word, but that is another matter.

The issue is whether colleges and universities will face repercussions for whom they hire and tenure from the taxpayers, parents and students who finance them—and whether higher education generally, and, sadly, the liberal arts in particular, are entitled to the limitless financial and moral support of the public as they increasingly become academic carnival acts.

Academic freedom is not a self-justifying good. It must be oriented to some end that merits the support of those who finance it. One end of liberal education is the advancement of knowledge, which requires diverse opinions and the freedom to challenge orthodoxy. But another is to preserve and transmit a social and cultural inheritance. This is true if the transmission encourages challenges to the tradition as well.

The mere expansion of knowledge understood as information without an accompanying sense of philosophical wisdom and moral limitation is unable to justify itself or prevent its own abuse. Theodore Roosevelt, perhaps before the Progressive virus—one of whose symptoms is hyper-rationalism—fully infected him, explained: “There is not in all America a more dangerous trait than the deification of mere smartness unaccompanied by any sense of moral responsibility.”

Castro was consequently correct to observe that Jarrar’s tweet violated “common decency.”  Education that does not cultivate that decency does not deserve the label “liberal.” Liberal education, Cardinal John Henry Newman wrote in his Idea of a University, both was conducted by “gentlemen” and cultivated them. Consider Jarrar’s celebration of a 92-year-old national icon’s death next to Newman’s description of the “gentleman”—and let us spare the gender lectures for a moment; “gentleman” and “gentlewoman” work alike:

Hence it is that it is almost a definition of a gentleman to say he is one who never inflicts pain. … The true gentleman in like manner carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast;—all clashing of opinion, or collision of feeling, all restraint, or suspicion, or gloom, or resentment; his great concern being to make every one at their ease and at home.

Newman, who himself challenged emerging views of education, did not say gentlemen could not disagree. It was “clashing” and “collision”—gratuitously inflammatory intellectual exchange—to which he objected. Newman thus continued:

If [the gentleman] engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, perhaps, but less educated minds; who, like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the question more involved than they find it. He may be right or wrong in his opinion, but he is too clear-headed to be unjust; he is as simple as he is forcible, and as brief as he is decisive.

Of course, intellectual combat does not always inspire civility. But it is exceedingly difficult to make what should be a powerful case for liberal education (Newman: in the liberally educated student, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom”) when its most public voices actively undermine its purpose.

Academic freedom is in fact vital to the pursuit of truth and the transmission of tradition. Tenure is crucial to academic freedom, which is all the more reason to take care in conferring it. But tenure does not exist in nature. It is a social convention that its financiers will question if it does not serve its purpose.

It is true that a weapon placed in the hands of Jarrar’s conservative critics would likely be turned against them. That is among the reasons it would be imprudent to punish her. But it is also fair to observe that institutions that undermine social values should not expect support from society. It may be contractually necessary to tolerate obnoxious speech from a tenured professor, but it is also necessary to justify tenure. The failure to do so may be inseparable from the phenomenon of the sprawling mega-university that lacks a coherent sense of purpose rather than simply feeling an entitlement to exist.

To argue reflexively that a professor should be able to say whatever he or she wants in whatever manner he or she desires does not of itself make a case for academic freedom as necessary to liberal education. Some of those defending Jarrar’s academic freedom have in fact made that case, most notably and persuasively Keith E. Whittington. Likewise, FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has been heroic and principled in defending freedom on campus.

But much of the rhetoric surrounding the controversy has simply assumed that academic freedom justifies itself and that it is sufficient to say it should not be violated. Defenders of campus speech would do well to recall that it serves a telos rather than treating it like most rights are: as a perpetual-motion machine needing no external justification.

There are, again, ample prudential reasons to leave Jarrar to her profanities and move on. But those reasons should not be confused with a philosophical justification for liberal learning that commands ongoing support from the paying public. Jarrar’s self-congratulatory immunity to consequences—which she appears to regard as a toy rather than a trust—does not extend to higher education generally, an institution from which mainstream Americans feel increasingly isolated. Her tenure may entitle her to say what she wants, but public institutions of supposedly liberal learning have no comparable entitlement to public support.

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