Friday, May 12, 2006

The Academic Bill of Rights

You might have noticed a little "stoush" brewing betwixt SB and myself regarding the "Academic Bill of Rights," a document purporting to rectify so-called "left-wing bias" on US college campuses. You can read the Wikipedia entry here, an apologia by David Horowitz (the author of the Bill) here, and the American Association of University Professors' position here. Though SB claims that "the striking thing is how scared the left are of entrenching basic rights in academia," the Bill has also been attacked by science educators, biology professors and libertarians (see also The New Republic). Science educators fear legal action from creationist students who might claim that their preferred "theory" isn't getting equal time in the classroom; while libertarians rightly lampoon the Bill as "right-wing political correctness." Others fear that the demand that "Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate" will see Holocaust deniers demanding equal time in the classroom. Indeed, the Bill could well see the content of university curricula decided by lawyers rather than scholars--and precisely how this would advance the cause of academic freedom is beyond me.

This last point is for me the most significant. At least since the Enlightenment, the history of prevailing intellectual cultures in institutes of higher education in the West has been allowed to take its own course. At certain times and places, Hegel was in vogue; at other times and places, Kant; at still others, maybe the Utilitarians. The various systems of thought grouped under the label "postmodernism" largely emerged in response to and as a critique of Freudo-Marxism and Sartre, and are but the most recent heirs to the tradition of Continental Philosophy. At no time did a Kantian cry: "Hey! This professor has a Hegelian bias! We need a Bill of Rights to force him to pay significant attention to our theories!" Many philosophy departments are dominated by the Analytic tradition, but I've never heard of those of the Continental persuasion running to their legislators complaining that this constitutes a breach of their academic freedom. The ABOR represents the first time that I can think of--in the West at any rate--that ideas have demanded legislative backing and the threat of possible future legal action to help them hold their own in the marketplace of ideas that has hitherto been the hallmark of academia.

How quaint.

UPDATE: Bruce has a brilliant post on this topic.