Fish on freedom

Stanley Fish’s new book The First consists largely of repackagings of ideas Fish has already developed: he’s covered free speech in There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech and It’s a Good Thing Too, academic freedom and academic culture in Save the World On Your Own Time and in many essays, religious freedom in a handful of essays, including a brilliant one called “Vicki Frost Objects” that’s far better than anything here. But Fish writes as sharply as ever, and The First could be a nice introduction to his writings on the issues emanating from the First Amendment. 

But I want to question something that he writes about academic freedom. His argument here centers on a single crucial distinction, which he develops in response to the Chicago Statement on academic freedom:

My challenge to that popular view (the Chicago statement has been endorsed by a number of other universities) depends on a distinction between freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry. Freedom of speech is a democratic value. It says that in a democracy government should neither anoint nor stigmatize particular forms of speech but act as an honest broker providing a framework and a forum for the competition of ideas and policies. In this vision, every voice has a right to be heard, at least theoretically. (In fact, differences in resources will almost always translate into differences in the size of the audience one can reach.) In the academy, on the other hand, free inquiry, not free speech, is the reigning ethic, and academic inquiry is engaged in only by those who have been certified as competent; not every voice gets to be heard. The right to speak in the scholarly conversation does not come with membership; it is granted only to those who have survived a series of vettings and are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room.

I think Fish knows that this might not be comforting to people worried about professors and administrators who exclude the ideas they don’t like, so he clarifies:

Academic inquiry, then, is not free in the First Amendment sense; it is free only in a very special sense: the path of inquiry is open and should not be blocked either by putting the stamp of approval on particular points of view in advance or by dismissing other points of view before they are heard and evaluated.

But why not? Why shouldn’t those who ”are left standing after countless others have been sent out of the room,” those ”who have been certified as competent,” decide that some points of view actually may (perhaps must) be dismissed before being heard and evaluated?

Fish argues that a scholar like Charles Murray should be treated differently than a provocateur like Ann Coulter, should be given a hearing in venues where she should not, but what if the certified-competent decline that distinction and treat Murray and Coulter identically? I don’t think Fish can offer them any reasons why they shouldn’t. His longstanding belief that academic life is to be regulated only internally, by people engaged professionally in the practices of that life, provides no means by which academic life can be prevented from growing narrower and narrower and narrower. 

I’ve been reading Fish pretty carefully for a long time now, and I think he would reply that no such means could be provided — that you cannot write rules and guidelines in such a way that people in power will be unable to abuse them, twist the rules to their purposes, as long as their power is uncontested. (Note that when power is to some degree distributed, rules can be effective: thus the ability of the American judiciary to constrain some of Donald Trump’s impulses.) If this is indeed his view, he may well be correct. For instance, conservative and religious voices — N.B.: those are not the same thing — may alike be so tenuously present in academia that they can do nothing to soften the tyranny of the certified-competent. Certain ”paths of inquiry” are closed and on Fish’s account of the academy must remain closed, despite his lip service to the phrase. 

If so, do we simply accept that state of affairs? Or do we look for broad social forces or institutions to which academic institutions might legitimately be held accountable?