Academic Freedom

Friday, 3rd February 2017

From Feb. 3, 2017

I’ve been thinking about academic freedom in this new age, especially in light of the violent protests at Berkeley. Under the guise of representing all perspectives, I’m afraid that soon we’re going to be faced with “tolerating” hate speech. There will be much to be done in thinking through what it means to teach in that environment. For the moment, though, I want to think about what academic freedom really means to me. This is something that I wrote for an address at Rhodes University a year or so ago, and is now in a paper in the Journal of Academic Freedom. Yes, I’m going to quote myself. What?

“[A]cademic freedom does not mean clearing the barriers so that the academic superhuman can exert a world-defining intellectual power. Freedom in the academic world is about recognizing the disruptions in thought, in social order, in our worlds. We all are trained to use our tools and methods, but we don’t always use them to advance freedom. It is easier, and more conducive to contemporary university definitions of productivity as defined by metrics, to think of our task as adding another brick to the disciplinary cathedral, rather than as preparing for and activating virtualities.

The freedom I want to see in academia is creative, and not merely analytic or descriptive or even juridical or emancipatory. It is creative of new concepts, new experiences, new mechanisms. What I want is the surprising, the unexpected. I want the disruption. I’m not talking about having a fight—I’m talking about a shift in my perspective, and that of others, based on new information, new experience, new methods. I want Hannah Arendt’s idea of freedom as virtuosity, without the Aristotelean undertones—freedom as action that opens up new creative space. I want the marketplace of ideas, not the mall of ideas. I want the agora in its best classic sense, the space not just of ideas but of experience and perspective. I want the space of Zulu isibongo praise poetry, similar in intent to the medieval European Feast of Fools, the space of reversal, disruption, and artful talking back to the existing structures of power. I want the place where it is safe to be queer, that is, it is safe to perform a range of surprising, shocking, sublime, and profane identities and affects. I want the place where it is safe to be black, and not just safe but exhilarating and a new opening to creative possibilities. I want a thousand tiny sexes; I want a thousand tiny races. I don’t want to teach the controversy, if that means boiling things down to opposing positions and forcing people to choose between conservative or liberal, past or future, PC or Mac. That’s just a tamed and toothless virtuality. Academic freedom for me means looking for the new thing, the new virtuality, with everyone present and accounted for.”

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