Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Academic Freedom: How Odd Is That?

Academic journal article Texas Law Review

Academic Freedom: How Odd Is That?

Article excerpt

Academic Freedom: How Odd Is That? FOR THE COMMON GOOD: PRINCIPLES OF AMERICAN ACADEMIC FREEDOM. By Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post. New Haven, Connecticut and London, United Kingdom: Yale University Press, 2009. 263 pages. $27.50.


The first meeting I attended as a member of the Duke Law School faculty was dominated by a discussion of the ways in which the Law School held itself aloof from the rest of the university (budget, calendar, graduation, promotion procedures, the selection of chaired professors, admission policies) and the importance of maintaining those ways. As we were walking out I said to a colleague, "I understand perfectly why we would want this independence from the protocols and procedures everyone else adheres to; what I don't understand is the assumption (never voiced, but deeply controlling) that it is ours by right." I feel the same way about academic freedom. Who wouldn't like it to be the case that his or her profession was exempt from the spheres of authority and discipline to which other professions were subject? The desire needs no explanation. That anyone would grant the desire defies credulity.

Matthew Finkin and Robert Post's new book For the Common Good: Principles of Academic Freedom1 is an effort to explain why academics should be allowed a latitude not enjoyed by others. Their method is first to air the arguments of those who want to limit or even to eliminate academic freedom and then to present the counterarguments as they have emerged in tandem with the growth in strength and influence of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). These counterarguments are not so much elaborated as simply plunked down; the implied message is twofold: (1) the pro-academic-freedom position is so superior that merely to announce it is to win the polemical day and (2) any reader of this book will be on the right side. There is a whiggish historical narrative in which the dark ages give way first to the Enlightenment and then to the triumph in the twentieth century of liberal rationalism. Statements from the New York Times, from the writings of prominent judges, and from the Church fathers are introduced and then quickly left behind, as if to suggest that they neither need nor deserve a hearing or a reasoned refutation: the implication is that they refute themselves.

Here is an example early on in the book. Finkin and Post have been discussing the case of Noel Journet who was burned to death in 1582 for questioning the authenticity of the Bible and asserting that Christianity is a fraud.2 (Nowadays such publications land you on the New York Times Best Sellers list and garner you invitations to appear on Bill Maher's TV show.) They comment: "The medieval church had been critical not only of the pride of knowledge but also of the desire to know things not useful to salvation, of curiositas."3

First of all the disjunctive "not only . . . but" is off the mark: the pride of knowledge and the warning against seeking knowledge not useful to salvation are one and the same. Useful knowledge, according to Augustine (whose strictures against the "vice" of curiosity are canonical), is knowledge that leads you to a heightened awareness of God's bounty;4 prideful knowledge is knowledge you accumulate in order to display your dominion - not God's - over nature.5 "Curiosity for Augustine," writes Duke Professor of Divinity Paul Griffiths, "is appetite for nothing other than the ownership of new knowledge."6 The man who is curious accumulates knowledge for the sake of collecting it; the man who acquires knowledge, as we might say, "for its own sake," has given himself over to a form of lust, to an acquisitiveness, which because it is without a purpose beyond itself can never satisfy. Like Edward G. Robinson's insatiable gangster in Key Largo, he always wants more.7 The curious man, says Griffiths, "is always a fornicator: he perverts study and investigation in much the same way that having sex with those to whom you are not married perverts the gift of sexual appetite. …

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