25.3.19

A CASE FOR THE CANON AND THE CURRICULUM?

Our President recently signed an Executive Order notifying institutions of higher learning that they are on Double Secret Probation or something, and at risk of losing federal funding if they suppress free speech.  The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (disclaimer: they are on the Cold Spring Shops "nice" list at Christmas) issued a statement that summarizes the stakes well.
To the extent that today’s executive order asks colleges and universities to meet their existing legal obligations, it should be uncontroversial.

FIRE will watch closely to see if today’s action furthers the meaningful, lasting policy changes that FIRE has secured over two decades — or results in unintended consequences that threaten free expression and academic freedom. We note that the order does not specify how or by what standard federal agencies will ensure compliance, the order’s most consequential component. FIRE has long opposed federal agency requirements that conflict with well-settled First Amendment jurisprudence. We will continue to do so.

FIRE knows from years of experience that censorship silences students and faculty from across the ideological and political spectrum. Any principled and effective defense of freedom of expression must protect student and faculty expressive rights without regard to viewpoint. To secure the benefits of the “marketplace of ideas” for campus communities and for our nation as a whole, all students and faculty must be free to peacefully speak their minds.

As our work demonstrates, campus censorship is a real and continuing problem. We appreciate the executive branch’s attention to this issue. As a proudly nonpartisan organization, FIRE will continue to lead the fight for campus speech rights and academic freedom regardless of the political party in power or the popularity of the speech at issue. The First Amendment and freedom of expression require no less.
The separate mention of "campus speech rights" and "academic freedom" is salient, and it's a point not necessarily well understood by politicians, or by academicians themselves.

Academic freedom does not mean academic license.  Rather, it means academicians enjoy a great deal of latitude to investigate questions that interest them, subject to the constraints of the discourse practice in their discipline.  At the risk of oversimplifying to finish this post in finite time, scholarly inquiry involves variations on the theme "Proposition P is valid under conditions C."  The rules of construction include an aversion to logical fallacies; a preference for the simpler as opposed to the more complex explanation, thus reaching P by less restrictive types of C; at least some basis for falsifying or generalizing or making more specific the argument, perhaps by checking against reality and seeing whether you do better with your inference than you would by flipping a coin; and ways by which stronger arguments displace weaker arguments.  "Narrowly viewed, tenure is a protection for professors to investigate, and to properly present, contested ideas. The fundamental principle of scholarly inquiry is 'no final say,' no matter how many claims a scholar or a publicist says 'definitive.'"  Yes, sometimes that approach can become self-parody.

Campus speech rights, however, cross the line into Constitutional protections, and here, Oxford political theorist Teresa M. Bejan offers a useful investigation of what that means.  One might use the term "freedom of speech" loosely as in the liberty to pop off about anything, any time, anywhere.  That's not the same thing as the liberty to address a governing body in order to influence a particular policy.

We have good manners to serve as a constraint on free speech in the first sense, or perhaps enlightened self-restraint.  It's probably not smart to go into a Harley bar and pour beer over the riders and say good things about rice-burners.  We have rules of order to serve as a constraint on free speech in the second sense.  No matter how good it might feel to yell "Believe all victims" when the legislature is debating tax policy or the siting of an airport, that really isn't convincing anyone not already convinced, or is it germane to the question before the house.

That's something that Union College president David R. Harris appears to understand in his "A Campus Is Not the Place for Free Speech."  Sometimes you have to be outrageous to make a point; his point is not outrageous at all.
The mission of a higher education institution is to provide students and all in our community with the information, experiences and opportunities to understand not what to think, but rather what the arguments are for various perspectives and how strong each argument is. Our focus is on how and why, and only indirectly on what.

Free speech, in its purest form, is an exercise in what is achieved when a person yells a view and then leaves, after which someone with an opposing perspective does the same. The speakers do not grow as a result of the experience, and the audience has no opportunity to probe the opposing points of view. Such an exercise is guaranteed by the Constitution, and I wholeheartedly support the exercise of free speech in public spaces.

On campuses, however, we must strive for something more than free speech. Our mission requires that we seek what I refer to as constructive engagement. It is not enough for individuals to speak freely. We must also find myriad ways to put a range of views into conversation with one another. It is what we do in classrooms every day. It is what we do on debate teams. It is what happens across every campus, far more than critics appreciate. It is what happens in the lives of college students much more frequently than in the lives of most adults, in part because college campuses and social networks tend to be more diverse than “real world” neighborhoods and social clubs.

This emphasis on constructive engagement is why, at Union College, we have launched an initiative to create the conditions for hearing and learning from diverse perspectives.
The first paragraph: yes, ideally, that is what education is all about, playing with ideas.

The second paragraph: that's the category error Professor Bejan takes on.  Yes, the Constitution guarantees the right of peaceable assembly to seek redress, which is not the same thing as getting a policy intending to provide redress onto the legislative calendar, and which doesn't apply to screaming heads on cable news panels or rumbles in biker bars.

The trouble comes up in the third and fourth paragraphs.  "Constructive engagement" and "learning from diverse perspectives" is too often honored in the breach in higher education.  Mr Harris is getting lit up in the comments on precisely that score.

On one side of the campus culture wars, we have people arguing from extremely tight priors and ruling some conditions C as out of bounds, perhaps with the best of intentions, but none-the-less, violating the rules of construction It does no more good to blame all sorts of ills on some -ism or -phobia than it did to lay them off on Original SinTeach the controversies, and consider other sets of C.

On the other side, we have people bringing in provocateurs simply to set the True Believers off.  That might demonstrate how tight the True Believers' priors are; it doesn't do much to open students' minds to the possibility that there are other C leading to the validity of P.

Here, I've filled up a mini-dissertation without yet introducing the Canon and the Curriculum.

Like any aspiring circus impresario, I saved the Big Finish for the end.  Here's the basis of Professor Bejan's argument.
The reason that appeals to the First Amendment cannot decide these campus controversies is because there is a more fundamental conflict between two, very different concepts of free speech at stake. The conflict between what the ancient Greeks called isegoria, on the one hand, and parrhesia, on the other, is as old as democracy itself. Today, both terms are often translated as “freedom of speech,” but their meanings were and are importantly distinct. In ancient Athens, isegoria described the equal right of citizens to participate in public debate in the democratic assembly; parrhesia, the license to say what one pleased, how and when one pleased, and to whom.
I submit her argument is incomplete, in that the discourse practice in the academy is not the same thing as isegoria, as, to pick one example, an economist ought take on a mathematician on the details of a proof with the greatest of circumspection, whilst "put a sock in it, parrhesic!" might be something to roll out in a social media setting sometime.

Note, though, the intellectual origins of these two concepts.
As a form of free speech then, isegoria was essentially political. Its competitor, parrhesia, was more expansive. Here again, the common English translation “freedom of speech” can be deceptive. The Greek means something like “all saying” and comes closer to the idea of speaking freely or “frankly.” Parrhesia thus implied openness, honesty, and the courage to tell the truth, even when it meant causing offense. The practitioner of parrhesia (or parrhesiastes) was, quite literally, a “say-it-all.”

Parrhesia could have a political aspect. Demosthenes and other orators stressed the duty of those exercising isegoria in the assembly to speak their minds. But the concept applied more often outside of the ekklesia in more and less informal settings. In the theater, parrhesiastic playwrights like Aristophanes offended all and sundry by skewering their fellow citizens, including Socrates, by name. But the paradigmatic parrhesiastes in the ancient world were the Philosophers, self-styled “lovers of wisdom” like Socrates himself who would confront their fellow citizens in the agora and tell them whatever hard truths they least liked to hear.
Read on, and discover that the discourse practice of the academy is something different from popping off in the agora or attempting to persuade the ekklesia.
Noting the lack of success that Plato’s loved ones enjoyed with both isegoria and parrhesia during his lifetime may help explain why the father of Western philosophy didn’t set great store by either concept in his works. Plato no doubt would have noticed that, despite their differences, neither concept relied upon the most famous and distinctively Greek understanding of speech as logos — that is, reason or logical argument. Plato’s student, Aristotle, would identify logos as the capacity that made human beings essentially political animals in the first place. And yet neither isegoria nor parrhesia identified the reasoned speech and arguments of logos as uniquely deserving of equal liberty or license. Which seems to have been Plato’s point—how was it that a democratic city that prided itself on free speech, in all of its forms, put to death the one Athenian ruled by logos for speaking it?
And these days, "logocentric" is a put-down; one of the postmodernist invocations of Sin. Sad.
To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all. What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear—including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.
It's not clear to me that those students respect equal rights or bourgeois norms.  Nor is it clear that speech codes and privilege-shaming or the rest generates equal access to the agora.  It's simply a new form of privilege, and Professor Bejan is correct about where that leads.  "When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last."

"Given all the competing demands on our time, that people have continued to read and appreciate these dead white males suggests that their work has value."

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