Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Knowledge in the Making: Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America's Schools and Universities

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Knowledge in the Making: Academic Freedom and Free Speech in America's Schools and Universities

Article excerpt

Knowledge in the Making: Academic Freedom and Free speech in America's Schools and Universities Joan DelFattore. New Haven, CT and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 306 pp. $35.00

Professor Joan DelFattore has written a profound, complex study of academic freedom, in large part from the standpoint of case studies, including many lawsuits and judicial decisions. In this sense, this is a book for lawyers who represent government (school board) employers, university administrators, and also for lawyers who represent scholars and employees who have been punished by their employers for speech the employers did not like.

Academic freedom relates to scholarly research and teaching in the subject of the scholar's expertise. Scholars are free to express new ideas, which may contrast sharply with paradigms adhered to by powerful leaders in specific academic disciplines. With this use of the term, key elements of academic freedom involve open scholarly debate marked by critical thinking and critical analysis. In this regard, on the first page of the Preface, DelFattore writes that "public schools and universities must address the issues raised by the expression of controversial views." And on the last page of the text (p. 271), she refers to "an increased appreciation of the importance of controversial expression," and urges scholars and institutions to help make "American education safe for controversy." From beginning to end, the book discusses the core of academic freedom itself.

Obstacles to academic freedom can come from a variety of sources including government bureaucrats, political and religious leaders and organizations, judges (at various levels, right up to the Supreme Court), university administrators, etc. Perhaps the most insidious obstacles come from academic leaders (department chairs, journal editors, peer review referees, specific leaders of professional organizations and learned societies, who do not like their pet theories and paradigms to be contested and overturned). In a certain sense, much of the problematic nature of academic freedom disputes involves power and turf rather than ideal principles of academic freedom itself. Some other obstacles involve political correctness (speech codes, etc.). Political correctness is not always intellectually correct and accurate. Another obstacle is advocacy research, which tends to inhibit real open discussion based on critical thinking. With ideology and power tending to have more importance than truth, advocacy research can perhaps be described as a situation in which he who leaps before he looks might be jumping to his own conclusions.

Major problems also arise when the concept of academic freedom is invoked relating to criticism of university administrators or to activism on or offcampus. It seems that First Amendment and whistleblowing come into play more than a pure sense of academic freedom. DelFattore is at her best in discussion of these aspects with many legal case studies given in- depth treatment. She is less thorough on the subject of how academic leaders suppress ideas they do not like. Emphasis is given to the obligation of powerful academics to establish standards and acceptable methodologies in their academic disciplines: "...The faculty in each discipline are entrusted with the authority to determine its scope and its acceptable methodologies ... to decide as peer reviewers whether scholarship is worthy of being published or presented at academic conferences.... Clearly these decisions must rest on commonly understood standards..." (p. 8). But what happens when a paradigm- busting idea or theory claims that such standards and methodologies are erroneous or incomplete? As a general rule, scholars do not like to have their pet theories and paradigms contested and overturned. …

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