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Fish’s Two Languages of Academic Freedom

February 9, 2009

Really, I am not obsessed with Stanley Fish despite the mounting evidence to the contrary.  I would write about other prominent theorists if they, too, wrote a weekly blog for the New York Times and made asinine assumptions in at least every other post. In his latest contribution to the internet, “The Two Languages of Academic Freedom,” Fish recounts the story of a physics professor at the University of Ottawa named Dennis Rancourt who was recently fired, despite his status as tenured professor.

Prof. Rancourt, a self-described Critical Pedagogue, actively practiced what he calls “academic squatting” and promised his classes at the beginning of the semester an A+ in order to undermine the system of academia enacted to create ideal, rule-following workers. Rancourt’s interpretation of critical pedagogy sharply differs from mine and even some of the most liberal academics would describe his methods as unnecessarily radical. Though Rancourt’s actions are a far cry from the normal limits of academic freedom, Fish sets up Rancourt as a strawman and attacks a figure far out on the fringes of academic rights.

Fish sets up Rancourt’s definition of academic freedom against an Arizona court’s 1987 decision that allows the dismissal of a tenured professor for inadequate teaching methods saying, “Academic freedom is not a doctrine to insulate a teacher from evaluation by the institution that employs him.”

The two languages of academic freedom are defined by Fish in his penultimate paragraph.

The Arizona court thinks of academic freedom as a doctrine whose scope is defined by the purposes and protocols of the institution and its limited purposes. Rancourt thinks of academic freedom as a local instance of a global project whose goal is nothing less than the freeing of revolutionary energies, not only in the schools but everywhere.

The best language of academic freedom is a universally understood amalgamation of the two set forth by Fish–an academic Esperanto, if you will. Academic freedom must be bound, at least loosely, within the realm of reality and functionality; but higher education must be allowed the freedom to change the minds of its students and society in general.

Critical pedagogy demands that an educator work inside the system to change the system. Rancourt, with possibly noble intentions, overstepped his academic boundaries but Stanley Fish would see that the end lines of academic freedom be pulled closer around educators, perpetuating the effects of the system.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2009 5:40 pm

    Maybe Prof. Rancourt just lost it because he’d been assigned to his University’s Assessment Committee for too long! 🙂

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