February 8, 2005

It's a Fair Cop

In the widening spiral of discussions about Ward Churchill, I’m accused of being one of the “soft left”, of being a liberal modernist, of being a scholar whose own work is horribly obscure (and sells poorly on Amazon), and of being careless in proofreading this blog. I plead guilty, your Honor. As far as being of the “soft left”, I not only plead guilty but suggest that the court add new charges to the docket. “Soft” is too generous for someone who flirts so outrageously with not even being “left” at all.

In other news on the Ward Churchill front, many folks have taken umbrage at my quick dig at Glenn Reynolds. Let me clarify: that comment is not about Reynolds’ work as a legal scholar, but about the standards he employs as a blogger. One could argue that Instapundit is his hobby, and not something that should reflect on his status as a scholar. Churchill, I think, could say the same thing about some of his own writing that is now being used to attack him. You could (and some have) defend Churchill as a scholar by pointing to some strong and markedly scholarly works in his oeuvre, most of which come from early in his career, particularly the essay “A Little Matter of Genocide” and his work on COINTELPRO.

This observation opens onto some of the deepest questions about the nature of academic freedom. Tenure is a system that recognizes people for what they have done and offers them blanket protection on that basis for what they will do. The best career trajectories in academia, in my view, are those where a scholar does something after tenure, with its protections, that is fundamentally unlike his or her pre-tenure work. Better, richer, more daring or provocative, less constricted or constrained.

So in the best-case scenario, what are you really looking for in the tenure process? If you don’t want a guarantee that what someone has already written, they will write again and again, you are looking for quality of intellect and for some sort of evidence of a lifelong commitment to the academic ideal. That ideal is not a mirror image of what the larger public sphere should or does look like. Churchill’s defenders have observed that his books have sold many more copies than all of the books and writings of his various critics. Indeed so. Ward Churchill is an important and legitimate figure in the wider democratic public sphere. He speaks to and for his audience.There ought to be Ward Churchills as long as there are audiences who seek out what he has to say, or even audiences which might learn something from the intensity of his polemical response to American history and society.

But this is not what we claim to be doing with academic standards. If the point of academia was to mirror the wider American public sphere precisely, then the conservative critique of the leftward tilt of academic life becomes devastatingly on-target. The academic humanities and social sciences, whatever they are and should be, bear little resemblance to the distribution of opinion and argument in American public culture.

So if you tenure (or invite someone to speak as) an academic, that’s partially an expression of trust in that academic, that whatever intellectual evolutions they undergo, they’ll still be bound by a latent professionalism, a belief in a very particular bounded set of higher standards. I’m the last person to draw those standards tightly: I blog too, and often sloppily in many senses of that word. I consistently argue here and elsewhere for a loosening of many academic corsets: I want academics to write more passionately, with more diversity, with a higher regard for clarity and less regard for theoretical obscurity, and so on. I want academics to write inside and outside of the particular constraints of their scholarly fields of speciality. The bedrock values that I think should always define academic professionalism, however, are commitments to fairness, a near-religious faith in the messiness and complexity of truth, an abiding appreciation of complexity, a commitment to reason. By that standard, I think you can suggest that Reynolds is degrading his work as a legal scholar through some of his blogging, and that Churchill long ago left his scholarly professionalism in the dust.