Trust & Academic Processes

This is a response piece to an article by Stanley Fish that I recommend you take a moment to read before you take a gander at my essay. This response piece is meant to answer the question of What does his suggestion mean in terms of freedoms being provided and taken?

We put an awful lot of trust in the academics, instructors and those involved in research. The future of humanity and science is, quite literally, held in their hands. Stanley Fish, in his article “Conspiracy Theories 101,” proposes that we unleash these people and allow them to delve into whatever topics interest them, no matter the unrest that is caused by their ventures. Imposing restrictions on topics that a person may conduct studies on can only limit the possibilities of results and further advancements in understanding and development, limiting or reduce the growth that humanity can enjoy. Fish would argue that there is much to learn, from any topic, beyond what is granted at face value.

Traditionally, Getting over the popularity hurdle has been quite difficult for science. It is unfortunate because we are left to ponder the possibilities of where we, as the human race, would be if our ancestors had been more accepting of logic and argument. Fish argues that Academic Freedom is the freedom, “to subject any body of material, no matter how unpromising it might seem, to academic interrogation and analysis” (Stanley Fish 63). It follows that Fish is in favor of the study of topics like voodoo, spirituality and astrology, provided their study adheres to the academic interrogation and analysis techniques that others do, from here on referred to as the academic process. He does not go into detail about what those techniques and interrogations entail, although it is easy to assume he is referring to the scientific method. The scientific method is based around peer review and response as well as coming up with testable hypothesis’ – meaning that something can only be scientific if it is possible for it to be proven incorrect. The scientific process is what must be accredited for advancements in physics, mathematics and many other sciences, but also in writing and logic.

Fish stumbles at one point, detracting from the solidity of his argument. He assumes that there is merit to be found in all topics. He argues that controversial topics and conspiracy theories, granted that they are subjected to the academic process, are acceptable topics for the classroom given that teachers do not use the classroom as a soapbox. Fish drives this home by saying, “The distinction I am making – between studying astrology and proselytizing for it – is crucial and can be generalized; it shows us where the line between the responsible and irresponsible practice of academic freedom should always be drawn” (Fish 64). It is an accepted fact that bias is not something that can be removed from any person’s communication or instruction, so instructors’ agendas, and views, will influence their discourse with students. This is the only point in the article where Fish references the right of the student to be taught and not indoctrinated or brainwashed. It cannot be the case that academic freedom only refers to the rights of the instructors, since they are clearly in a position that could be taken advantage of. Students too must recognize and exercise their academic freedom in the form of enforcing the processes and taking part in the educational process itself. Students should be able to realize when their instructor is attempting to indoctrinate them and should act accordingly.

All of the above refers to the teachings of college students. Younger minds admittedly would need stricter guidelines in order to ensure their minds are not molded inappropriately. It is difficult, still, to avoid indoctrination when a child’s mind is so pliable, as is evidenced by our nations compartmentalized views – the populated and metropolitan areas moving towards liberal and democratic ideals and the rest of the country falling into the conservative and republican. Even looking at the state in which we live, California is known as a tree hugging or hippie state for our views on ecology. It does not take much thought to be able to draw the conclusion that our schools are influencing our thoughts on the matter.

Topics of lesser acceptance in the public arena are often there because they are not fully understood, or are perceived as being impossible or improbable. For example, when Galileo first came up with his heliocentric theory of how the solar system worked, he was only following the evidence of how the lights in the heavens moved. Ultimately his views were so controversial to the religious and ego-driven belief in a geocentric solar system that he was tried under suspicion of heresy, forced to abandon his studies and placed under house arrest. This is only a single example of where studying a controversial subject may be of benefit to humanity as a whole. There have been countless examples of where unpopular opinions on subjects ranging from the shape of the earth, the existence of molecules, evolution and even the origins of the universe that were held back and ultimately became widely accepted reasoning for the way our world works. These contrary views are often provide us with the ability to gain further insight from literature of the past. “There is, after all, a good argument for saying that Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Dante, among others, cannot be fully understood unless one understands astrology” (Fish 64). It is an easy conclusion to draw, that we are able to learn from all that is around us, even if that understanding is only used to bring our past into perspective.

Providing this freedom to academics and their students can do no wrong. Allowing any group of people to spend their time inquiring into the way that the world has worked in the past or how it may exist in the future carries no further cost. Critics may not support this time loss, but they cannot ignore our track record of shunning those who ultimately have the right answer. Unfortunately, we do not document cases where we have shunned someone for bad views and had that benefit us in the end, although it does not require anyone to think too heavily to picture it happening. To say that giving them the freedom to study or research what they wish would in some way, shape or form inhibit, other people’s freedoms or rights is really quite absurd. Thanks to the scientific method we have our litmus test set up to be able to discern between what is realistic and not, provided our instructors are able to handle the responsibility of policing themselves.

Fortunately, we do not have to rely upon individual academics policing themselves because the process involves peers. An example of how our academic processes provides a sift through which our studies and academic findings are judged is the current controversy surrounding the theory of Macro Evolution versus Intelligent Design. This is a battle that has gone on within the U.S. School System for nearly thirty years. The proponents of Intelligent Design have taken to using political might in order to get footing in the academic world, squabbling over terminology used in evolution as its main argument. It has since become a topic brought before the courts because peer review has shown that it is really not as sound a theory at all, leaving more questions than answers. It is important, however, to recognize that psychology has learned a lot about the human ego and personality by studying our religious and pointedly ego based views of the world. While the specifics are not important to this discussion, the fact that we are having it is, in fact, proof that limiting academic freedom would be the only way to impair our freedoms. We are free to write and study these topics and use them as evidence against the practices of the past, expanding our historical perspective. If it were not for the freedom for academics to delve deeper into the topics of ill refute, unvoiced and controversial, we would surely be limiting our most important freedom – the freedom to learn.