ACADEMIC FREEDOM and FREE SPEECH on CAMPUS

By Moyers, Bill | Academe, January/February 2018 | Go to article overview

ACADEMIC FREEDOM and FREE SPEECH on CAMPUS


Moyers, Bill, Academe


The following is a condensed and edited version of "Academic Freedom in the Age of Trump," an interview originally published in October 2017 on BillMoyers.com. Read the full interview at http:// billmoyers.com/story/academic-freedom-age-trump/.

Bill Moyers: Professor Scott, connect these dots for us. What's the pattern?

Joan W. Scott: The pattern is an attack on the university as a place where critical thinking occurs, where free thought is encouraged. This is not new; it's been going on for a number of years. It can be seen in the defunding of state universities. It can been seen in attacks on free speech at the university, particularly on the supposed tenured "radicals" who are teaching in universities. The Trump election brought it the fore and made it possible for a number of different groups whose aim is to stop the teaching of critical thinking to launch direct attacks.

Moyers: You've said there's a kind of bloodlust at work. What do you mean by that?

Scott: Richard Hofstadter, in his famous book written in the McCarthy period, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, talks about the deep hatred that some Americans had for what they consider to be elitist intellectual activity. I think that's what's happening now-the vicious unleashing of attacks on professors and students, the clear decision by the Right to make free speech their campaign and to demonstrate that universities and particularly students are dangerous leftists who would deny to others the right of free speech. The Right as the victim of the intolerant Left. It is a concerted plan to depict the university itself as a place of dogmatic ideological thinking-an institution somehow out of step with the way most Americans think. What I mean by bloodlust is a kind of vicious vindictive description of the universities and their faculties.

For example, Betsy DeVos warned students that they don't have to be indoctrinated by professors at their universities. But the reason you go to university is to be taught, is to learn how to think more clearly, to call into question the ideas that you came with and think about whether or not they are the ideas you will always want to hold. A university education at its best is a time of confusion and questioning, a time to learn how to think clearly about the values and principles that guide one's life. Of course, it's also a time to acquire the skills needed for jobs in the "real world," but the part about becoming an adult with ideals and integrity is important.

Moyers: Richard Hofstadter referred in particular to what he called "the national disrespect for mind" that he said characterized the country in the 1950s. Is that true of what's happening today or is this more a deliberate political strategy to try to put the opposition off balance? Do they disrespect the mind or are they in need of a political tool to weaponize the culture wars?

Scott: I think it's both. I think there is a disrespect for the mind that Trump, for example, exemplifies. His is a kind of strategic thinking that's more about shrewdness than about intellect. His attack on "elites" is meant to rally his base to rebel against the powers that be-in Washington especially. I don't think he cares much about higher education per se; he just wants to demonstrate that learning isn't necessary for business or government. He wants to elevate mediocrity to a heroic virtue. But I also think there's a concerted effort on the part of groups like the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers, of people like Betsy DeVos, to call into question the very function of public education in general and of the university in particular.

Moyers: Back in the 1950s, when Senator Joseph McCarthy railed against universities, artists, writers, and journalists, his followers howled along with him in trying to persecute their perceived enemies. As you listen to what's happening today, do you ever hear McCarthy's voice resonating in your head?

Scott: I do. …

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