Academics against knowledge

Meet the academics who think academic freedom is a neoliberal conspiracy.

Joanna Williams

Two words recur throughout The Imperial University, with the regularity of a verbal tic: neoliberal (shorthand for all that’s bad) and Palestine (representing the good, the oppressed, and all that’s worthy of solidarity). The starting point of every contribution to this edited volume is that ‘higher education is firmly embedded in global structures of repression, militarism and neoliberalism’, and as such, ‘the US academy is an “imperial university”’. So convinced are the authors that ‘police in riot gear do not signal something exceptional; rather, their presence unmasks the codes of “the normal” in academic discourse and practice’ that readers may be forgiven for thinking universities have been turned into prisons, and scholars have become tragic victims. Each chapter recounts the restrictions placed upon those who teach about global injustices based upon gender, race, class and sexuality, or engage in scholarship that is critical of ‘the geopolitics of US imperialism across historical time and space’.

It is undoubtedly true that many US universities (just as in the UK) were founded upon the profits of empire. And post-9/11 there have been increased checks upon academic freedom. However, the authors of this volume do themselves no favours in making these arguments. They persistently over-dramatise the problems: we’re told, for example, that students who challenge neoliberalism ‘can quickly be removed from their positions of privilege and rendered part of the “criminal class”’ (‘rendered’ having particular connotations in the context of the ‘war on terror’). They elide different issues. ‘The rise in tuition and indebtedness within the context of the academic crisis simply is the militarisation of campus; they are one and the same’ (emphasis in original). Worst of all, the solutions they propose would denigrate academic freedom, knowledge and the very idea of a university.

Against knowledge

For the academics contributing to this book, knowledge, it seems, is hugely problematic. Its production is ‘central to the imperial project’ and as such, ‘no piece of scholarship has ever been non-aligned’. Attempts at objectivity are derided as mere ‘methodological foolishness’. They argue that in disciplines such as anthropology, knowledge is used to ‘other’ ‘indigenous and minoritised communities’, providing ‘both information and “intelligence” for the subjugation and administration’ of such groups. In science disciplines, knowledge is considered tainted by the development of the atom bomb and it is said still to serve the interests of America as a global and military power. In all areas of the university, knowledge is seen as simply ‘a valuable commodity’, ‘marketed through books, articles and conferences as well as patents and governmental contracts’ in the neoliberal economy.

There’s an important point in here: scholars and universities should not align themselves with either state projects or commercial interests. To do so jeopardises both objectivity and the exercise of academic freedom. Unfortunately, this is again lost in the hyperbole of the arguments and the proposed solutions. Instead of making the case for more objective, or better, knowledge, the authors argue: ‘We ultimately fail to dismantle the academic-military-prison-industrial complex if we address it only through the production of more knowledge. Since knowledge is a commodity… the production of “better”, more progressive or counter-carceral knowledge can also be co-opted and put to work by the academic-MPIC.’

When research is seen as simply contributing to the neoliberal state, and teaching is considered one of the primary ‘colonising tactics of indoctrinating Western “civility”’, readers are left asking why the contributors to this volume carry on working in the academy they loathe so much. Some seek to carve out ‘alternative’ space in the interdisciplinary terrain of area studies, ethnic studies and women’s studies. Others reject individual scholarship and engage in a ‘collective process of knowledge production’. But most often, what’s argued for is a rejection of academic work in favour of political campaigning; the authors ‘embrace the idea of teacher-scholar activism’.

One author describes how, having attended a conference about Palestine, ‘I felt it would be a disservice to my political awakening not to figure out ways to integrate these debates into my classroom’. The inherent narcissism in such a statement underscores a bigger problem: the rejection of disciplinary knowledge leaves the academics-turned-campaigners without any basis to challenge the ideas they deride. Without knowledge, the racism and sexism the writers identify is met by assertion and emotion. Their students are denied the knowledge that may help them not only to make sense of the world, but perhaps also to transform it.

Redefining academic freedom

A further problem with giving up on objective knowledge as the goal of higher education is that the exercise of academic freedom becomes meaningless. New ideas are merely a different perspective rather than a fundamental challenge to what has gone before. Indeed, many of the authors of The Imperial University are scathing of ‘“academic freedom”’ (their scare quotes) and reject it outright as ‘one of the pillars upon which academic liberalism builds its edifice’. They mock Cary Nelson’s statement that ‘academic freedom thus embodies Enlightenment commitments to the pursuit of knowledge’ for its elitism and naivety. ‘Academic freedom’, it is argued, emerged as a way to deal with dissenters within the academy, containing and tolerating knowledge that might threaten the status quo on the basis that people have the right to free expression while at the same time preventing such knowledge from being acted upon. By the same token, they argue that John Stuart Mill’s view that academic freedom allows for the checking of truths in a marketplace of ideas means that the ‘campus radical’ is tolerated as ‘a foil for the correctness of liberal precepts and as long as he or she does not indulge in any attempt to move a transformative political agenda [into] the campus culture’.

Having rejected the liberal concept of academic freedom, then, contributors to The Imperial University posit a redefinition – one that is based upon a broader concept of equity and social justice. They argue that building a ‘progressive ethos’ into the concept of academic freedom necessitates thinking about freedom in a ‘deeper way’ that encompasses ‘the question of affordability of higher education’ and ‘genuine campus democracy’, as well as commitment to affirmative action and a ‘social force that would allow our ideas to have cultural valence’. Readers can only surmise what is meant by ‘genuine’ democracy and to whom the ‘our’ refers – presumably it refers to the authors, their like-minded colleagues, and the society they would like to live in. Academics are unelected and they do not have a special right to determine the values that have weight in society, however much they may believe they have justice on their side. Ironically, exposing ideas to critical scrutiny – exactly the liberal project academic freedom supports and which these writers seek to do away with – does allow for some ideas to be discredited and better ideas to win out. Circumventing this intellectual process prevents both freedom and justice.

The authors of this volume deride as ‘sanctimonious liberals’ those who ‘invoke high-minded principles such as “academic freedom” when it suits them’. They argue that the university has been ‘tainted by Enlightenment-based projects of knowledge production and structuration that perform heteropatriracialities’, and that it must instead be ‘imagined as a site of solidarity with those engaged in struggles against neoliberal capitalism’. Call me a sanctimonious liberal, but this sounds to me like sour grapes from those unable to make a convincing case based on the intellectual merit of their arguments.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Imperial University, Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (eds), is published by University of Minnesota Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)