Lacking in charismatic authority.

April 14, 2008, 3:19 pm

No, not us. Well, yes us, but that’s not what I’m writing about. Thomas Haskell’s “must-read” essay on “Justifying Academic Freedom” is only partly online, but that part includes this excerpt from the Seligman and Lovejoy statement on academic freedom, from 1915.

The lay public is under no compulsion to accept or act upon the opinions of the scientific experts whom, through the universities, it employs. But it is highly needful, in the interest of society at large, that what purport to be the conclusions of men trained for, and dedicated to, the quest for truth, shall in fact be the conclusions of such men, and not echoes of the opinions of the lay public, or of the individuals who endow or manage universities. To the degree that professional scholars, in the formation and promulgation of their opinions, are, or by the character of their tenure, appear to be, subject to any motive other than their own scientific conscience and a desire for the respect of their fellow-experts, to that degree the university teaching profession is corrupted; its proper influence on public opinion is diminished and vitiated, and society at large fails to get from its scholars, in an unadulterated form, the peculiar and necessary service which it is the office of the professional scholar to furnish.

As Haskell goes on to say, you can see in this passage how all the pieces of academic inquiry and freedom fit together and rest on the core concept of the disciplinary community. Haskell—unlike Seligman and Lovejoy—knows the pitfalls and costs of a disciplinary communities, which he sees as

dangerous tools designed to fight fire with fire…. The community of the competent is … a special kind of voluntary association, one that offers its members (and through them, indirectly, the entire culture) a degree of protection against the tyrannous tendencies of unchecked public opinion…. [I]t achieves this laudable end only by exposing them to a rival source of majoritarian pressures, internal to the community.

Which is to say, academics can enforce an orthodoxy on each other. And, Haskell says, working conscientiously through Stanley Fish and Hayden White (“There is no satisfying a critic who prefers his history incomprehensible,” Haskell notes), such communities present difficult philosophical problems.

Still: “such communities do still exist, and their very existence gives some assurance that no one’s incompetence is likely to hold the floor for long”—so long as such communities operate properly, by policing their boundaries. Which, Haskell acknowledges, is hardly a cause people rally around. “In many parts of the world these truths will seem too frail to be valued, and even where valued, they may prove too lacking in charismatic authority to compete against other, more visceral sources of conviction.”

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