Monday, February 07, 2005

Academic Standards

Wow. Swarthmore College History Professor Timothy Burke has written one of the most compelling posts I've read in a long while (hat tip: Crooked Timber). It's on the Ward Churchill scandel, of which I blogged on here.

In addition to writing a brief yet searing indictment of the scholars who share Churchill's vein of thought, he also makes a trechant point about how academia should deal with writers like Churchill.
"[T]he first instinct of all institutions (including conservative ones) that get caught up in this well-rehearsed minuet, is to cite free speech as a defense. I think that’s perfectly proper in a highly limited way. Once an invitation has gone out, I think you generally have to stick by your guns. Everyone does have a right to speak and say what they want, whatever it might be.

But academic institutions also insist in many ways and at many moments that they are highly selective, that all their peculiar rituals—the peer review, the tenure dossier, the hiring committee, the faculty seminar—are designed to produce the best, most thoughtful community of minds possible...Anybody has the right to speak, but nobody has the obligation to provide all possible speakers a platform, an honorarium, an invitation.

In that context, it becomes awfully hard to defend the comfortably ensconsed position of someone like Churchill within academic discourse, and equally hard to explain an invitation to him to speak anywhere. There’s nothing in his work to suggest a thoughtful regard for evidence, an appreciation of complexity, a taste for dialogue with unlike minds, a proportionality, a meaningful working out of his own contradictions, a civil ability to engage in dialogue with his colleagues and peers in his own fields of specialization. He stands for the reduction of scholarship to nothing more than mouth-frothing polemic.

We cannot hold ourselves up as places which have thoroughly and systematically created institutional structures that differentiate careful or or thoughtful scholarship from polemical hackery and then at the same time, have those same structures turn around and continually confirm the legitimacy of someone like Churchill. We can’t deploy entirely fair and accurate arguments about the thoughtless cruelty and stupidity of a polemicist like Ann Coulter only to fill our bibliographies with citations to Ward Churchill, not to mention filling our journals with highly appreciative reviews."

The point isn't to take a hatchet job to Academic Freedom. Churchill has the right to say whatever he wants to say. And the University of Colorado, by (ill-advisably) granting him tenure, has in doing so granted him immunity from punishment for the expression of his views. However, while the academic community has no right to censure him, neither does it have the obligation to provide him a forum. By citing him (at least approvingly), by inviting him to speak, by giving him fellowships and chairmanships, tacit approval is being granted to his shoddy scholarship. So while we can't take away what he's already been given (his teaching post), we can act to make his career stall out.

Of course, there is always the risk that restricting forums to "good" scholars will morph into restricting forums to "mainstream" scholars. That is a problem, to be sure. However, I think we can get past it. We all know of commentators that we respectfully disagree with. Those that make good arguments, even if we think they are wrong. For example, I have tremendous awe from Antonin Scalia, even though I have a radically different view of legal theory than he does. I'm heavily influenced by the works of Catherine MacKinnon, Richard Delgado, and other critical theorists, even though I disagree with a lot of what they say. Essentially, then, I'm not arguing for more uniformity in scholarship but higher quality. More debate, more discourse, and more discussion. Any professor who can't keep up with the big dogs should be left behind.

1 comment:

Baron Violent said...

The problem in this case is that Churchill isn't a professor of a discipline which has, in fact, a discipline. He's part of the "cultural studies" disciplines. If he was a history professor, or a political science professor, he probably would've been nailed to the wall by now and exposed. But because he works on "cultural studies" there is no set discipline or basis for evaluating that work or determining whether it is good or bad. It's such a postmodern field that they often reject any notions of traditional evidence and argument by running semiotic circles around the issues and post-structuralizing escape ladders out of the loopholes in their arguments.