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Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom

Joan Wallace Scott
Columbia University Press


The idea that academics and scholars should not have to trim their sails according to the political wind is a core principle of American liberalism. It is of course a principle found and observed elsewhere in the Western world also. But these liberal principles are now under concerted attack in the US and in a way uncommon in, at least, the Western nations of the European Union.

In response to this phenomenon a new left politics of passionate resistance and confrontation has emerged on the US campus. It is a politics which many traditional left liberals in the US and Europe find unattractive, odd and baffling. However, a closer look at what is happening on campus in the United States may help explain the growth of these new forms of protest and perhaps render them less bizarre to an older generation and to outsiders.

Joan Wallace Scott, the author of Knowledge, Power and Academic Freedom, sets out to offer an account of the attacks on academic freedom in the United States. She is a historian and one committed to the principle that academic freedom supports the common good. She tells a story of interference in the curriculum by wealthy donors, the political vetting of teachers and online denunciations of individual lecturers as a growing and corrosive phenomenon. In response to the attack on the academy she has written a series of essays that examine the history of the idea of free enquiry.

On the basis of the evidence, it seems reasonable to describe the current situation in US universities as a crisis, particularly given that the assault described has, since the election of Donald Trump, become government policy. Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy deVo, along with members of her family, is connected to  the Amway Foundation, a leading funder of attacks on all forms of public education “including the higher education ‘establishments’”. The objectives of such groups are entirely political. They wish, Wallace Scott argues, to exclude people and ideas in order to establish an education system which ignores “slavery, racism, working class and feminist protest, imperial outreach, economic inequality and campaigns for social justice.” Wallace Scott describes the grim and focused processes undermining academic freedom:

To further the attack on the academy, rightist foundations have funded online media sites such as the Professor Watchlist, which purports to identify dangerous left-wing professors and hopes to call their credentials into question, thereby ridding campuses of them. They have reduced critical scholarship to partisan politics, which is a different matter from what might be called the politics of academic knowledge – that is, debates about what counts as knowledge and how we determine it, including the way in which ethical commitments influence the things we study. Turning Point USA, which defines itself as ‘a youth organization that promotes the principles of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government,’ has been given millions of dollars for its campus campaigns to elect conservative student governments and to secretly tape lectures and classroom discussions in the interest of ‘outing’ the so-called leftists who control what its founder, Charlie Kirk, refers to as ‘islands of totalitarianism’ – that is, existing college campuses. Many of these deep-pocketed foundations led a concerted campaign during 2017 and 2018 to bring to campuses a succession of controversial speakers (few of them serious academics, most of them right-wing cable news commentators) who – astonishingly – sought to present white conservatives as victims of leftist intolerance. They have tested the limits of free speech on campus as far as possible and sought (sometimes successfully) to provoke the forms of resistance to their hate speech (calls for speaker bans, heckling, silencing of speakers, unruly demonstrations) that would provide evidence of their victimhood, leading to programs of ‘affirmative action’ for conservatives! In the process, free speech and academic freedom have been invoked repeatedly, as if they were the same thing – they are not.

This process of organised political interference from the right has given rise to a political response quite different in character from the left-liberal activities of an earlier era. In a recent essay, Jacob Hamburger discusses the new forms of protest:

Campus activists hardly set the agenda for the broader left, but their increasing willingness today to engage in confrontational tactics is indicative of a larger trend. Whereas liberals ten years ago may have shied away from open avowals of moral conviction ‑ a close cousin of religious zealotry ‑ many of today’s liberals, progressives and democratic socialists are becoming more comfortable admitting the role of passion and emotion in their politics. As garden-variety Democrats have rediscovered mass protest ‑ against climate change, migrant family separations or the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court ‑ activists to their left now feel emboldened to confront politicians at their homes and occupy public highways. Looking back with scorn on the record of liberal technocracy in America and Western Europe, theorists of democracy like Chantal Mouffe and Wendy Brown have argued for a liberal-left politics that emphasizes conflict over compromise. There are some good reasons to think that today’s liberals may follow their lead.

While some older US liberals will look askance on all this, as Hamburger points out, many

look around them and don’t recognise the rationalist liberalism they used to know. But many of today’s liberals can hardly avoid drawing grim conclusions, based on the best evidence available, about where the reliance on reason and science has led them. With Donald Trump in the White House, a return to the strategies of Bush-era liberalism would seem to be irrational at best.