The Real Threat to Academic Freedom

Amanda TaubLast weekend, I wrote, Public Shaming and the Power of Employers. In it, I argued that public shaming did great harm primarily because it leads to job loss. The issue is not so much that people are just awful to each other, but rather that workers in modern America have little control of their work lives. In the example that I used from So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a white man ended up with very little harm done because he immediately got another job. The black woman, however, was still unemployed years after her public shaming. As usual, our society refuses to engage with the injustice of the economic system itself.

A couple of days ago, a guy writing under the pseudonym Edward Schlosser wrote an article at Vox, I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me. The article quickly became a big deal. Jonathan Chait was right on top of it with yet another of this articles, “See, I was right!” And conservatives everywhere just love this because they want to claim that the real intolerant ones are not people who want to deny rights to others, but rather liberals who informally police speech. To be honest, I find the whole thing exhausting.

Let’s start with the fact that young people yelling at old people is a rite of passage. For my entire life there have been college students making grand statements about how their college professors are offensive and just don’t get it. Even Jonathan Chait admits that the political correctness that he talks about is just a “wave.” The exact same complaints date back at least to the 1960s, but apparently Chait doesn’t know anything before his time. As far as I can tell, there have been student rebellions for as long as there have been colleges. I don’t see any reason to think this “wave” is any worse or even different from earlier “waves.”

Amanda Taub wrote a great response to Professor Schlosser’s article, I Was a Liberal Adjunct Professor. My Liberal Students Didn’t Scare Me at All. She gets at what I was talking about regarding shame. The issue isn’t that the students are particularly horrible. And it most certainly isn’t that the students have more power. It is that the professors have far less power than they used to — relative to the administration. She quoted an amazing statistic from the American Association of University Professors: only 24% of professors are tenure or tenure track. The rest are adjuncts, which are generally temporary positions that pay poorly and have no benefits — the minimum wage job of the PhD crowd. And that means that tenured professors are afraid because “there’s a mile-long line of applicants eager to take their place.”

Taub summed up the issue well:

The problem isn’t the substance of student complaints — the problem is that university lecturers are so terrified of the effect student complaints could have. That’s a problem to be solved by universities having faculty members’ backs, not by somehow silencing the debate over identity politics.

She then went on to discuss the way the whole issue gets distorted. It strikes me as very American. People in most nations look at the world very much in terms of class. But we have a bias against that. We want to see everything as individual against individual — or at least one group against another group with roughly equal power. As a result, we have ended up with the ridiculous system we have where those with actual power are never held to account or, as in this case, even blamed.

Students are as they ever were. After the power elite spent decades attacking teachers at all levels, it isn’t surprising that teachers at all levels would find they have greatly reduced power. What is outrageous, however, is that people like Jonathan Chait and Edward Schlosser would focus on an irrelevance and ignore the real power that is hurting professors and academic freedom.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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