Academic Freedom And Democracy
The opening of the George W Bush presidential library (or li-bary, as they were saying on the Stephanie Miller show) reminded us of the disaster his presidency was, as in Alternet's 50 Reasons You Despised George W. Bush's Presidency.
In New Mexico, former Republican congresswoman Heather Wilson's departure to become a college president in another state reminded us why we aren't so sorry to see her go, as in Jim Baca's Only In New Mexico blog.
During those dismal years when Bush started unnecessary and illegal wars, and Heather supported them, that killed and maimed millions, when government started massive programs to spy on its citizens, sold off the natural environment to corporations and helped the rich get massively richer and the poor get increasingly poorer, I was confident that the truth would eventually come out. That "history" would prove those wrong who excused and lied about it all. That, years from now, research and thoughtful books would have left us with a fairly broadly accepted sense of what the Bush era was really like, when it was depoliticized and viewed against the entire arc of American history.
Now I'm not sure. The historic record, and the sense we have of people and events from our past, of the Bush/Wilson years and of everything that has gone before, account for much of who we are, who we think we are, and how we proceed. The historic record goes into every decision we make. We refer to our combined, accumulated body of knowledge, stored in books and now digitally and online, to find out what we didn't know, to confirm our suspicions, to prove falsehoods wrong, to figure out what to do next.
The past is always in contention -- we hear "The founding fathers intended this" and "No, they intended something else" -- but you can look in books and see what the founding fathers actually said and did. The historic record keeps the arena of what truth is confined to a channel defined by what the verifiable facts are, and therefore allows there to be consensus on some important things, such as that those founding fathers meant us to be self governing, that people get into positions of power by being voted into them, and that things like the ability to vote and the ability to figure out who to vote for are important.
The books where our record resides come from the research of scholars, and are the result of an education system that allowed for people to write what they wanted to write. They are the result of of what's commonly called academic freedom.
Schools, where educators, who are familiar with that body of knowledge, teach it to students, with the help of textbooks, which are all drawn from that body of knowledge, with foot notes at the end, therefore play the central role in forming the body of knowledge, in passing it on, and in maintaining the conditions all this can happen in.
But schools, actually our system of education, is under attack. Powerful forces want to privatize it. They want to be able to patent research. A lot of research is already being patented, so that other scholars can't see it, can't build on it, can't test it or correct it. Corporations, who heavily fund academia, especially now that government support has been withdrawn from it, have been able to quash research that harms their economic interests or points out what they are doing wrong.
Tenure, which provided the job security that allowed people to do research the powers that be didn't like, is almost a thing of the past. Most teaching positions are now "adjunct," or part time. Many teaching positions, called "endowed professorships," are now paid for by corporations.
Here in New Mexico there are people trying to turn UNM into an arm of Capitalism. Much of the school's money, and the intellectual efforts of those who run it, are being spent on a business development center called a "partnership" with private industry. It's all about economic development, not academia, not educating the next generation. The profit motive, not the desire to learn, to understand, to know the truth, directs decisions.
Academia is also under attack politically, at the institutional level from things like efforts to control curriculum to extending the model that's been imposed on K-12 schools to universities, where funding is tied to things like graduation rates, and on an individual level, as in the case of William Cronon, a Wisconsin professor who had started a personal blog in which he criticized Republican policies. The Wisconsin Republican Party responded by demanding all emails he'd sent from university accounts that contained words like "Republican", a publicity stunt not intended to get his emails but to intimidate critics and activist educators, who were getting a lot of favorable publicity at the time by occupying the Wisconsin state capital in opposition to the Republican governor and legislators' outlawing public employee collective bargaining.
Republicans are fine with academics not having the freedom to find out and publish the truth. That way it's easier to have the founding fathers say what they want them to say, easier to get decisions through elected bodies that favor Capital and are opposed to the interests of working Americans.
What's going to happen when someone doing research at the South Dakota School of Mining and Technology comes across evidence that mining practices are putting things in the water or air that are causing fetuses to develop abnormally, with conservative Republican Heather Wilson running the school? If it comes down to a choice between a huge mining corporation's profits and a few deformed babies, will the research ever get published? Will, as has happened in other cases, the academic who uncovered the facts have her or his funding cut? If powerful people in the state, who make big donations to powerful Republicans, have the powerful Republicans let Heather know her job is in jeopardy, will that researcher have a job next year or will Heather?
Or will academics, as is happening already, see what has happened to their colleagues and simply not do research that could harm their careers or affect their ability to make a living?
If your sense of history is that things have gradually improved in America over the course of our democracy, it might be hard to see how the current trend in academia is a danger to democracy. After all, it's easy for me to theorize that if the only knowledge we have is what is bought and paid for by corporations, then our sense of who we are, our decisions about how to do democracy, about whether to be a democracy, will all be decided by corporations and their conservative politicians.
But place the assault on education in the context of what you know about conservative beliefs about privitization, that corporations can do everything better and more efficiently, and of the efforts to limit voting, and of their constant efforts to increase the power of corporations and decrease the power of government, and then consider their efforts to extend corporate control to the place where the facts are kept, to the university, where the way truth is discovered will be passed on to the next Americans.
For more on the assault on academic freedom and the different ways its being done see the American Association of University Professors, their Journal of Academic Freedom, the American Federation of Teachers, Psychology Today, and Google.