Clutching Pearls

Stanley Fish’s latest warning about the dangers of academic freedom is a work of surpassing nonsense. As usual, Fish would have his readers forget that academic freedom is threatened by the accelerating pace at which temporary lecturers are replacing tenure-line faculty at American colleges and universities. And he’d be grateful if onlookers would also ignore the fact that academic freedom isn’t guaranteed, that many scholars — sometimes even those who are dedicated to their jobs — are fired because their colleagues don’t believe they merit tenure. Instead, Fish focuses on the bad apples who hide behind the shield of academic freedom, getting away with all manner of misdeeds. Which, sure, does sometimes happen, though far less frequently than consumers of Fish’s drippings likely believe.

In this instance, Fish writes about Denis Rancourt, a physicist at the University of Ottawa. Rancourt, it should be said, sounds like buffoon:

Rancourt is a self-described anarchist and an advocate of “critical pedagogy,” a style of teaching derived from the assumption (these are Rancourt’s words) “that our societal structures . . . represent the most formidable instrument of oppression and exploitation ever to occupy the planet”…

It turns out that another tool of coercion is the requirement that professors actually teach the course described in the college catalogue, the course students think they are signing up for. Rancourt battles against this form of coercion by employing a strategy he calls “squatting” – “where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different.” That is, you take a currently unoccupied structure, move in and make it the home for whatever activities you wish to engage in. “Academic squatting is needed,” he says, “because universities are dictatorships . . . run by self-appointed executives who serve capital interests.”

Rancourt first practiced squatting when he decided that he “had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.” Accordingly, he took the Physics and Environment course that had been assigned to him and transformed it into a course on political activism, not a course about political activism, but a course in which political activism is urged — “an activism course about confronting authority and hierarchical structures directly or through defiant or non-subordinate assertion in order to democratize power in the workplace, at school, and in society.”

So gosh, yes, Fish must be right: if academic freedom protects a miscreant like Rancourt, it must be a terrible thing. But wait! Administrators at the University of Ottawa are now “recommend[ing] to the Board of Governors the dismissal with cause of Professor Denis Rancourt from his faculty position.” Which is to say, he may be fired. So Fish’s claim that someone like Rancourt, so long as he’s working in the halls of academe, will be “celebrated as a brave nonconformist, a tilter against orthodoxies, a pedagogical visionary and an exemplar of academic freedom” is drivel. In his conclusion Fish admits as much, allowing that Rancourt isn’t resting comfortably under the parasol of academic freedom. So the first several hundred words of the column were just a misunderstanding, then? And academic freedom functions properly after all, Professor Fish? “But only till next time,” he answers. That sound you hear, readers, is the clutching of pearls.

Luckily for Fish, he’s a regular contributor to the New York Times, which means that he’ll keep his bully pulpit even though he’s clearly incompetent.