Constituting Knowledge in Academia

This is the first in a series of essays about Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. His series is sponsored by Claremont McKenna’s Salvatori Center for the Study of Individual Freedom.

Keith E. Whittington is the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Politics at Princeton University. He is the author of Speak Freely: Why Universities Must Defend Free Speech, and Repugnant Law: Judicial Review of Acts of Congress from the Founding to the Present, among numerous other books on American Politics. 

Jonathan Rauch’s fascinating new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, places a particular emphasis on institutions as critical components in a liberal theory of knowledge production. Protections for freedom of thought and principles of critical discourse are essential, but by themselves they are not enough to create a robust informational ecosystem that will help produce new knowledge and efficiently and effectively disseminate the knowledge that we already possess. He highlights academia as one of several “reality-based” professional environments that have helped societies advance our understanding of the world, but he also warns that all of these communities are under pressure and that there is no guarantee that they will be able to continue serving that valuable function into the future.

In my recent book on universities and free speech, Speak Freely, I emphasize John Stuart Mill’s still relevant arguments for liberal principles of critical inquiry as essential to human progress, but I also note that Mill wrote before the advent of modern universities. He called for free-wheeling debate and a more tolerant civil society that would not only accept but welcome dissenters from religious, political, and social orthodoxies. The professionalization of universities required some modification of how that vision would be institutionalized. As I note there, “The demands of expertise require that we discipline free speech. . . . Free scholarly inquiry does not mean a free-for-all.” Scholarly communities need to be gatekeepers of knowledge, filtering out bad information and excluding those who are unwilling or unable to engage in the project of critical inquiry.

The Constitution of Knowledge identifies several commitments that are common to reality-based professional communities, including a properly organized academy. Those who care about advancing knowledge must be open to criticism, committed to evidence and argument, accountable for misconduct, open to diverse perspectives, nurturing of expertise, and encouraging of civil discourse. These are not easy commitments to maintain, and adding to the challenge is the fact that all of these commitments require balancing rather than absolutism. As he notes about accountability, for example, “we want people to feel safe making mistakes; otherwise they will not venture new hypotheses. On the other hand, we want to encourage them not to make mistakes; otherwise they will be slipshod.” We need to respect and encourage expertise, but claims of expertise and authority cannot be a shield by which we deflect scrutiny and criticism. We need a diversity of viewpoints in order to foster new ideas and critical engagement, but we need to be able to set aside ideas that are unsound and lines of investigation that are counterproductive. Getting the balance right is no easy task.

Unfortunately, universities are struggling to adhere to those commitments. Universities are not wholly autonomous institutions. They are dependent upon various external constituencies and vulnerable to attack. Advancing the truth is not always a popular endeavor. There are powerful interests that are more than willing to push back when challenged. Tenure protections were instituted in the United States in the early twentieth century precisely in order to try to insulate scholars and teachers from those kinds of pressures. Those protections are as necessary now as they were a century ago, but they remain quite insecure.

A large percentage of the teachers and scholars in American universities are outside the tenure stream. Sometimes those positions are justifiable; sometimes they are not. But all those members of the faculty remain particularly vulnerable to reprisals for the content of their speech. They enjoy few of the procedural protections that help insulate faculty who are on the tenure track, and short-term teaching contracts provide plenty of opportunities for administrators to simply push controversial professors out the door without ever having to explain why they are doing so. There are plenty of examples of tenured faculty members who suffer serious consequences when students complain about something said in class or politicians complain about something said on social media, but a much higher percentage of non-tenure-track faculty who find themselves in the midst of such controversies will also find themselves out of a job. Academic freedom in principle extends to every teacher and scholar on a university campus, but without the substantive and procedural protections of the tenure system their academic freedom is often more a matter of theory than practice.

Unfortunately, even those who operate within the tenure system are finding their academic freedom under threat. Universities are frequently all too willing to cave into pressure and get rid of troublesome professors. Financial settlements can often make unpopular professors depart voluntarily, but universities are not above skirting their own contractual commitments in order to dismiss members of the faculty. Meanwhile, the faculty themselves seem all too willing to introduce new loopholes into the tenure system that can be used to terminate controversial professors. Civility codes sound nice in theory, but in practice they give university officials the leeway to selectively get rid of professors who cross them. Proposals to carve out new exceptions to tenure guarantees based on social justice considerations likewise open the door to abuse and provide more tools for enforcing intellectual conformity in academia.

University leaders are frequently ill at ease when it comes to actually articulating and defending the core mission of the university to advance and disseminate human knowledge. When it comes to explaining what universities do and what students and members of the broader community should expect from a university, universities spend far more time highlighting features of the campus and the university experience that are orthogonal to or actively at odds with the academic heart of the enterprise. When protests are lodged about something a faculty member has said, university presidents at best offer a begrudging recognition that professors enjoy the right to say controversial things. The intellectual purpose of the American university will not be preserved into the future if university leaders are embarrassed by it. Academic freedom is an essential protection for the advancement of knowledge within universities, but as The Constitution of Knowledge emphasizes such procedural protections are not sufficient for creating an intellectual culture that can reliably make intellectual progress. Notably, what Rauch characterizes as “viewpoint diversity” is useful to knowledge creation. American universities might not be doing as well as they should on that issue. Rauch’s discussion of viewpoint diversity is nuanced, and appropriately recognizes that the advancement of knowledge benefits from being able to take some issues as (provisionally) settled and building specialized expertise. But our ability to make progress can be hampered if too much is taken for granted. We need skeptics and critics to help us refine our ideas, identify our mistakes, and discard our unsupported assumptions. We need a diverse range of perspectives to bring forward new questions and see problems from new angles. In some ways, American universities have made great strides in opening their doors to a wider range of people and perspectives, which has enhanced the academy’s ability to meet its aspirations. In other ways, however, universities have become notably less diverse. The decline in political and ideological diversity in the American professoriate leaves the academy intellectually weaker than it otherwise would be. That problem is amplified if conformity is enforced and dissenting voices are driven out or silenced. Universities should worry about falling victim to their own form of groupthink. They should also worry if broad swaths of the wider public come to see universities as politically and culturally hostile. Even if universities could be just as effective in producing new and reliable knowledge, they may become much less effective in communicating that knowledge to the wider society and less able to preserve the kind of resources and autonomy that would allow them to flourish

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