10.1.06

THE DIFFICULTY OF FRAMING A POLICY STATEMENT. Steven Horwitz at Liberty and Power links to a recently released statement by the Board of Directors of the American Association of Colleges and Universities on "Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility" The statement gets into a difficult position early.
Academic responsibility requires professors to submit their knowledge and claims to rigorous and public review by peers who are experts in the subject matter under consideration; to ground their arguments in the best available evidence; and to work together to foster the education of students.
That sounds straightforward enough, but "best available evidence" might rule out any work in literary criticism, and it certainly raises questions about what passes for "theory" in those quarters as something that merits peer review. (There is a much longer passage, under the heading "Academic Freedom and Scholarly Community," where the authors address that objection, although in such a way as to leave open the possibility of self-referential disciplines emerging. Market tests are Neglected Actors throughout that section.)

Professor Horwitz notes that hiring committees are self-referential. The possibility of a department or a discipline being captured by a faction that honors content-free research is real enough. Economics is not immune from that. As he notes,
After all, how well can an Economics department full of neoclassical economists really teach other perspectives (e.g. Austrian or Institutionalist, much less, say, Marxist)?
Marx is a minor post-Ricardian. Ronald Coase, Douglass North, and Oliver Williamson have much to say about the evolution of institutions. Hard-core Austrians who reject mathematical modelling and econometrics? That "best available evidence" line might suffice to ignore applications from such people.

Perhaps that opening paragraph is boilerplate. Perhaps the entire statement is spin. But it is not without consequence. Consider

Beyond fostering intellectual and personal development, a liberal education also enables students to develop meaning and commitments in their lives. In college they can explore different ways to relate to others, imagine alternative futures, decide on their intended careers, and consider their larger life’s work of contributing to the common good.

Building such intellectual and personal capacities is the right way to warn students of the inappropriateness and dangers of indoctrination, help them see through the distortions of propaganda, and enable them to assess judiciously the persuasiveness of powerful emotional appeals.

Is the notion of a "common good" indoctrination? Propaganda? Emotional appeal? Is that inevitably something different from pursuing a career and relating to others? What conceits are at work in that "imagine alternative futures?"

The statement is unlikely to mollify critics of the academy who see group think and phony diversity. Neither does it address the very real diversion of resources in the academy to non-academic purposes and emoluments for administrators.

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