Inscription on the Main Building at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin)
Bill Moyers and Joan Scott talk about the chilling atmosphere on campuses for both students and faculty.
By Bill Moyers / 10.18.2017
Back in the 1930s a scholarly intramural feud to choose the inscription for the new library at my future alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, ended in a draw. From many nominations the competition came down to two finalists. Both said the same thing in different tongues: “Ye Shall Know The Truth and the Truth Shall Make You Free,” from the biblical Gospel of John, and its Latin counterpart: “Cognoscetis Ventatem et veritas liberabit vos.”
Fortunately — at least for me — the selection committee chose English. As I crossed that plaza as a student in the 1950s, and twice later when I spoke at commencement, I would look up (mainly to check the time on the huge clock high on the iconic tower rising above the library), catch a glimpse of the inscription, and be grateful that so many of my professors had fought hard to prevent the politically appointed Board of Regents from dictating exactly what truth could be taught. Some paid a dear price for defending academic freedom, among them survivors of a ferocious campaign waged the previous decade by the state legislature to fire the university president, a political assault bravely resisted by many faculty and students alike.
Attacks on the Academy at large occur frequently in America, and none more intensely than now. Just consider these items from the news:
- A Republican legislator in Arizona introduced a bill that would prohibit state colleges from offering any class that promotes “division, resentment or social justice” without defining what he means by those words – Arizona earlier banned the teaching of ethnic studies in grades K-12.
- A Republican state senator in Iowa introduced a bill to use political party affiliation as a test for faculty appointments to colleges and universities.
- A Republican legislator in Arkansas filed a bill to ban any writing by or about the progressive historian Howard Zinn, author of the popular A People’s History of the United States.
- In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker tried to remove all references to the university’s commitment to the “search for truth.”
- Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature has stripped state workers and professors of their collective bargaining rights for professors.
- Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has called on conservative college students to join the fight against the education establishment.
- A leader of the College Republicans at the University of Tennessee wants to protect students in the classroom from intimidation by “the academic elite.” He announced that “Tennessee is a conservative state. We will not allow out-of-touch professors with no real-world experience to intimidate 18-year-olds.”
- The right-wing organization Turning Point USA created a “professor watch list” and has been publishing online the names of professors “that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
No one I know has followed this trail with keener interest or deeper concern than Joan Wallach Scott, one of the most respected and influential scholars of our time. Professor Emerita in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, she has been praised for groundbreaking work in feminist and gender theory, celebrated as a mentor, and honored as the author of several books; her latest, Sex and Secularism, will be published this fall. Earlier this year the American Academy of Arts and Sciences awarded her the Talcott Parsons Prize for distinguished contributions to the social sciences; previous recipients included Clifford Geertz in anthropology; C. Vann Woodward in history; Albert Hirschman in economics and Daniel Kahneman in psychology.
Bill Moyers Professor Scott, connect these dots for us. What’s the pattern?
Joan Scott: The pattern is an attack on the university as a place where critical thinking occurs, where free thought is encouraged. This is not new, it’s been going on for a number of years. It can be seen in the defunding of state universities. It can been seen in attacks on free speech at the university, particularly on the supposed tenured “radicals” who are teaching in universities. The Trump election brought it the fore and made it possible for a number of different groups whose aim is to stop the teaching of critical thinking to to launch direct attacks.
Moyers: You’ve said there’s a kind of bloodlust evident at work. What do you mean by that?
Scott: Richard Hofstadter, in his famous book which was written in the time of the McCarthy period in the 1950 and 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, talks about the deep hatred that some Americans had for what they consider to be elitist intellectual activity. I think that’s what’s happening now — the vicious unleashing of attacks on professors and students, the clear decision by the right to make free speech their campaign and to demonstrate that universities and particularly students are dangerous leftists who would deny to others the right of free speech. The right as the victim of the intolerant left. It is a concerted plan to depict the university itself as a place of dogmatic ideological thinking — an institution somehow out of step with the way most Americans think. What I mean by bloodlust is a kind of vicious vindictive description of the universities and their faculties.
For example, you read that quote from Betsy DeVos. She was warning students that they don’t have to be indoctrinated by professors at their universities. But the reason you go to university is to be taught, is to learn how to think more clearly, to call into question the ideas that you came with and think about whether or not they are the ideas you will always want to hold. A university education at its best is a time of confusion and questioning, a time to learn how to think clearly about the values and principles that guide one’s life. Of course, it’s also a time to acquire the skills needed for jobs in the “real world,” but the part about becoming an adult with ideals and integrity is also important.
Moyers: Richard Hofstadter referred in particular to what he called “the national disrespect for mind” that he said characterized the country in the 1950s. Is that true of what’s happening today or is this more a deliberate political strategy to try to put the opposition off balance? Do they disrespect the mind or are they in need of a political tool to weaponize the culture wars?
Scott: I think it’s both. I think there is a disrespect for the mind that Trump, for example, exemplifies. His is a kind of strategic thinking that’s more about shrewdness than about intellect. His attack on “elites” is meant to rally his base to rebel against the powers that be — in Washington especially. I don’t think he cares much about higher education per se; he just wants to demonstrate that learning isn’t necessary for business or government. He wants to elevate mediocrity to a heroic virtue. But I also think there’s a concerted effort on the part of groups of the Bradley Foundation and the Koch brothers, of people like Betsy de Vos, to call into question the very function of public education in general and of the university in particular.
Moyers: Back in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) railed against universities, artists, writers and journalists, his followers howled along with him in trying to persecute their perceived enemies. As you listen to what’s happening today, do you ever hear McCarthy’s voice resonating in your head?
Scott: I do. In some ways it’s even worse today. The internet has made possible a frightening practice of threats and intimidation — threats of unspeakable violence and death. McCarthy was scary, but not like that. There’s been a lot of talk about left student groups violating the free speech of the right. And certainly there are examples of students shouting down speakers whose political views they don’t want to hear, views they think don’t belong on a university campus. I certainly don’t support that kind of behavior. But what’s not been covered to the same extent is the attack by the right on people with whom they disagree. A large number of university teachers have been targeted for speeches that they’ve made, they’ve been harassed and threatened. Take the case of Princeton’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. She gave a commencement speech at Hampshire College in which she called Trump a racist and a white supremacist. Fox News carried it, and she received hateful emails, among them death threats — she’s African American — so there we threats to lynch her too. She canceled all of her speaking engagements because the threats were so violent. They make McCarthy look tame in comparison. McCarthy’s were violent threats at a more abstract level. These are specific threats: “I have a gun pointed at your head.” So there’s something now about the unleashing of violent hateful speech that is more prevalent than it was even in the days of Joseph McCarthy.
Moyers: If I may raise your personal story: Your father was suspended back then from his job as a high school social studies teacher and two years later he was fired because he refused to collaborate with an investigation into a purported communist infiltration in the New York public schools. How old were you at the time?
Scott: I was 10.
Moyers: Were you afraid?
Scott: Yep. Although we weren’t supposed to be afraid; we were supposed to be proud. And I certainly was proud of the principled stand he had taken. But yes, I was also afraid. FBI agents routinely came knocking at the door. The phone was certainly tapped. Years later I got a copy of my father’s FBI file, most of which was redacted. There were all sorts of amazing things in it; things that I thought at the time were maybe paranoid worries on the part of my parents turned out to be even more true than I thought they were. A couple of times I gave the wrong birthdate to get a summer job before I was 18. They had my name in my father’s FBI file with three different birthdays listed under it.
Moyers: Father and daughter!
Scott: They were doing even that? I was 16, 17 years old. So we were certainly afraid. We were worried. I had friends whose fathers were in jail. But the personal danger was the fear of going to jail or losing one’s job. The visceral expressions of hatred, the death threats, that are coming out now in social media. These are more frightening than my experiences as a kid.
Moyers: How long was your father out of work?
Scott: He never taught again. He had different kinds of jobs doing educational projects or working in various other places. But he defined himself as a teacher and he lost that permanently.
Moyers: What was your father’s name?
Scott: Samuel Wallach.
Moyers: His defense was both brave and eloquent. Let me read it to you:
I’ve been a teacher for 15 years, a proud American teacher. I have tried all these years to inspire my youngsters with a deep devotion for the American way of life, our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Hundreds of my youngsters fought in World War II and I know their understanding of the need to fight for their country was inspired by my teaching and the Bill of Rights… From that teaching, our youngsters got the feeling that we are living in a country where nobody as a right to ask what are your beliefs, how do you worship God, what you read.
“As a teacher and a believer in those fundamental principles, it seems to me,” your father said, “that it would be a betrayal of everything I have been teaching to cooperate with the committee in an investigation of a man’s opinions, political beliefs and private views.” If I may say, that’s one for the ages.
Scott: Yes it is.
Moyers: Did he live long enough to see your career as a scholar unfold?
Scott: Yes. he lived till he was 91 and he was proud of me. He would be even prouder now, I think, of the kinds of things I’ve been saying lately about academic freedom. All of my work in some way or another speaks to political issues according to the upbringing that I had, which was deeply rooted in exactly those principles that you just read.
Moyers: Ariel Dorfman has an essay in the current edition of The New York Review of Books. He says, “Never has an occupant of the White House exhibited such a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity, such lack of intellectual curiosity and disregard for rigorous analysis.” He describes what’s happening as “an assault on national discourse, scientific knowledge and objective truth.” Where is this taking us?
Scott: Oh God, where is this taking us? I hope not down the road of the kind of fascist thinking that was going on in Italy and Germany in the ’20s and ’30s, but it certainly feels we could move in that direction, toward an extremely dangerous authoritarian populism. Because the thing about education — and why I’m so passionate about the position and status of the university — is that it’s supposed to teach citizens how to think better, how to think critically, how to tell truth from falsehood, how to make a judgment about when they’re being lied to and duped and when they’re not, how to evaluate scientific teaching. Losing that training of citizens is an extremely dangerous road to go down because it does open people to the kind of toxic influences that Dorfman describes.
Moyers: Here’s the challenge: Two-thirds of Americans today don’t have college degrees. As politics last year and this year reveal, many of them have a deep resentment toward those who do, and toward the colleges and institutions that produce many of today’s so-called elite. How do you persuade those people that academic freedom is relevant to their lives?
Scott: One way is that even before college and university, teaching in public schools K–12 has to deal with what it means to learn the truth; it has to teach respect for science, for the authority and lessons of history. It also has to teach kids to question things — how to question them. I think if you start this at a lower level than at university, people who didn’t go to university would have some sense of how to make a judgment about the honesty or not of politicians. I think the anger that is being directed to universities and so-called elites at universities is actually an anger that’s displaced from politicians (who promise to make things better and never do), from employers, it’s an anger at the economic system that has put so many of these people out of the kind of work that once was so satisfying to them. Did you read in The New York Times that long article about the closing of the plant that made ball bearings in Indiana?
Moyers: It was four pages long and I thought at first, well, who’s going to read this? And I couldn’t stop reading it.
Scott: I couldn’t stop, either. Partly I was trained first as a labor historian, so this was my kind of story. But it also gives an example of the misdirected anger I was talking about. This woman — whose anger, and the anger and resentment of her colleagues — had been directed at Mexicans and in favor of the wall that Trump wants to build, when in fact the anger should be directed at the employers who are increasing the profits they were already making by employing cheap labor in Mexico. It’s capitalism, not elites and university teachers, that is the problem for vulnerable Americans, indeed for all Americans. The growing gap between rich and poor, the seeming lack of concern for the health and well-being of ordinary people, the obscene salaries made by CEOs who are increasing profits by moving their plants to places where labor is cheap — that’s where the problem is, not in schools, colleges and universities.
Moyers: She is an everyday American — the woman who was in that story — and she and her co-workers were doing a very good job in the factory, making a decent living, and boom! Their jobs were gone.
Scott: And the humiliating part of it [is], they were asked to train the people who were going to be their replacements! I think this is humiliation beyond belief.
Moyers: You’ve put your finger on something very important. There’s a cruelty in politics and capitalism in America today that is often called to account by professors doing splendid research about exactly what has been happening to our workers. The real ruling elites would prefer to hide that research or stop it altogether.
Scott: Exactly, and blame it on others — on immigrants, on Mexicans, on so-called elites.
Moyers: In your lectures and essays you use a term that we don’t hear very often today. You say the pursuit of knowledge is not an elitist activity but a practice vital to democracy and to the promotion of the common good. What do you mean by the common good and how does academic freedom contribute to it?
Scott: What I mean by the common good is that we understand we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves, that we live in societies together and must help take care of one another because you never know when you’re going to need to be taken care of by others. And it’s not enough to say that your family or your church is going to take care of you. Societies are collective entities, we’re meant to be connected to one another; the function of government is to administer that connection. We’ve increasingly lost that sense of community, of the notion that there is something we contribute to and benefit from that is called the common good. I think I would date the beginnings of that loss to the Reagan administration and to the notion that somehow we were all separate individuals who only ought to be interested in ourselves. There were a number of court cases in the early ’80s when class-action suits were brought, only to be thrown out by Reagan judges on the grounds that individual injury had to be proven, that you couldn’t use statistics about discrimination in the labor force. You had to have individual cases and each one had to be remedied as an individual matter. There was the tax reform movement that treated progressive income taxes as assaults on individual autonomy rather than what they are — a shared responsibility for ourselves and others in the society that we all live in. People began to say they didn’t want to pay property taxes any longer because they had no children in schools (and most property taxes were used to support the public schools). As if the education of society’s children didn’t have an impact even on childless people! The common good is the notion of shared collective responsibility and reciprocity. It’s that that we’ve lost.
Moyers: I grew up in a small town in East Texas in the ’30s and ’40s; I was the son of one of the poorest men in town but I was friends with the daughter of the richest man in town. Both of us went to good public elementary schools, shared the same good public library, played in the same good public park, drove down good public roads, attended the same good public high school, and eventually went on to good public colleges — all made possible by people who came before us, whom we would never know: Taxpayers!
Scott: They were people who were taking their responsibility for you in the sense that you were the next generation of a society that had benefited them and that they needed to benefit by continuing to support it.
Moyers: You mentioned Ronald Reagan. His kindred spirit Margaret Thatcher (prime minister of the United Kingdom) declared there is no such thing as society.
Scott: Yes. The late ’80s and ’80s — that’s the beginning of the turn away from collective responsibility to a kind of selfish individualism that we now associate with or call neo-liberalism.
Moyers: So colleges and universities contribute to understanding the need for a social contract — pursuing knowledge and understanding is important to responsibility and reciprocity. You’ve said that there is an important distinction between the First Amendment right of free speech that we all enjoy in some circumstances and the principle of academic freedom that refers to teachers and the knowledge they produce and convey. What exactly is that distinction?
Scott: Well, free speech is what we all have and is guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution. Academic freedom refers to what happens in the university, particularly in the classroom, and to the importance of the teacher having the right to teach and share what he or she has learned, has proven her competence to teach, having gone through a series of tests and certifications including research and writing to demonstrate her abilities and knowledge. I don’t think students have academic freedom in that sense but they do have the right of free speech; they can express themselves, but their ideas are not subject to the tests of the judgment of their peers or to scientific affirmation as teachers are. A biology teacher does not have to accept a student’s essay that insists creationism rather than evolution is the explanation of how we got to be where we are. That student is not being denied his right of free speech when he’s given a low grade for not having learned the biology. So the university is the place where the pursuit of truth is taught, the rules for learning how to pursue it are explained, and students begin to understand how to evaluate the seriousness of truth. Those are incredibly important lessons, and only the teachers’ academic freedom can protect them because there will always be people who disagree with or disapprove of the ideas they are trying to convey. There are students whose religious upbringing is going to make them feel really uncomfortable in a class where certain kinds of secular ideas are being presented. There are students whose ideas about history or sexuality are going to be similarly challenged to question, to affirm or to change those ideas. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be exposed to them; that’s why they’re at school. That’s why they come to school and to university: to be taught how to think well and critically about material that they’re being presented with. But it’s the teacher who is certified to teach them how to do that.
Moyers: You write that free speech makes no distinction about quality; academic freedom does.
Scott: Yes, and there’s actually a wonderful quote from Stanley Fish, who is sometimes very polemical and with whom I don’t always agree. He writes, “Freedom of speech is not an academic value. Accuracy of speech is an academic value; completeness of speech is an academic value; relevance of speech is an academic value. Each of these is directly related to the goal of academic inquiry: getting a matter of fact right.” Freedom of speech is not about that. Freedom of speech is about expressing your opinion, however bad or good, however right or wrong, and being able to defend it and argue it and be argued with about it in public forums. But that’s not what academic freedom is about. That’s not what the classroom is about. I would have a hard time banning even Richard Spencer [founder of the white nationalist movement] from speaking on a university campus, however hateful and dangerous I find his ideas.
Moyers: You quote Robert Post, the former dean of Yale Law School, who seems to suggest that professors do not have an unfettered right of free speech in the classroom, that they’re constrained by the need to teach their subject matter so that their job as educators limits their rights of free speech. Is he splitting hairs there?
Scott: Yes and no. I think he’s right that the criticism of too much political advocacy in a physics class for example is something that one could reasonably object to, that students who come to learn math or physics and who have to hear a speech about the war in Iraq for example, probably are right that they shouldn’t have to, that that’s not what they’re there in that class for. It doesn’t mean that that professor can’t speak outside of the classroom on those issues. But where it gets tricky is in classes where, say, history classes and a professor is teaching material that some students find objectionable because they think it’s too critical of the story that they want to be told.
Moyers: In one of your lectures you asked some questions that were rhetorical in nature—
Scott: I asked, but didn’t answer them — yes. Am I going to have to answer them now?
Moyers: Yes, the reckoning is here. So — should a professor be able to teach that human activity does not contribute to global warming?
Scott: I think it’s questionable. I’m with the climate scientists; I find it very hard to think that that would be a credible scientific position. How much human activity has contributed, OK, what other sorts of influences there have been, OK, but I think somebody getting up and saying that there is no proof whatsoever of human influence on climate change, I would have a hard time accepting the seriousness of a professor who taught that.
Moyers: What’s the difference between a climate denier and a Holocaust denier?
Scott: I think not much these days. I think not much at all because the climate denier tries to prove, as the Holocaust denier does, that the facts that demonstrate that there was a Holocaust and that there is climate change are wrong and don’t exist — against all evidence that they exist.
Moyers: Should a professor be able to teach creationism in the biology curriculum if half the students believe it?
Scott: No. Absolutely not.
Scott: Because, again, we’re talking about what counts as science. If the students don’t want to learn about evolution, they shouldn’t be in the course. A biology course that teaches creationism is not a science course, it’s a religion course. So the students demanding that creationism be given credence in that course are out of line and are denying the academic freedom of the professor. They are calling into question the scientific basis of the material that’s being presented. And students are not in a position to do that.
Moyers: So you’re saying that both sides of that argument don’t carry equal weight in the training of future scientists, right?
Scott: Yes, exactly.
Moyers: Are professors being “ideological,” to put your quotes around it, when they refuse to accept biblical accounts as scientific evidence?
Scott: No, I think they’re being true to their callings as professors of biology. And I think in fact to do anything else would disqualify them in the scientific communities in which they operate.
Moyers: Is there really no difference between the structures of discrimination experienced by African-Americans and criticism of those structures leveled against whites?
Scott: I think there is a huge difference between those things because I think what is being pointed out by African-Americans is that from slavery forward they have been living in a supposed democracy which treats them as less than other citizens, less than whites in the society. And I think that pointing out that there are structures of discrimination in the society, deeply rooted racist structures, that segregate housing, that send black children to ill-equipped schools, that discriminate in the workplace — these are truths about our society that must be faced. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ta-Nehisi Coates article in The Atlantic?
Moyers: Yes I have.
Scott: Your question, or my own question, made me think about it. He makes a very passionate argument about the structures of racism that go deep in American society and that if we’re going to correct them, must be addressed and pointed out, which is not to say that every white is a racist but that the way things are organized and the often unconscious biases that people bring to relations with African-Americans, need to be put on the table and examined for what they are.
Moyers: It makes a difference in lineage whether your great-grandfather owned slaves or was owned as a slave. Whether your grandfather was lynched or wore a white robe and did the lynching. Your circumstances can sometimes be traced back to those differences.
Scott: Yes — although probably not directly. But the structures that created those differences and those affiliations continue to organize life in our society.
Moyers: Do you think that the strategy on the right is to provoke situations that can be used to demonstrate that it’s the left that is shutting down freedom of speech today?
Scott: I do, yes. I think that’s what people like Milo Yiannopoulos, the conservative provocateur, are all about. He comes to a campus, he insults people, he engages in the worst forms of racist and sexist speech. And the point is to provoke leftist reaction to him that can then be used to discredit the left. And my sense is that what the left needs to do is find strategies that will defuse the situation rather than play into their hands.
Moyers: After the outbursts that greeted Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley, a city councilwoman there said, “I don’t appreciate that these are racists coming to UC Berkeley to spew hate.” Would you argue that racists should be silenced?
Scott: I don’t think we can argue that. I think what we need to do is expose them for what they are and fight back. I think we need to let them speak. They have free speech rights. At the same time we have to argue that other groups must not be shut down, either — say, students standing up for Palestinian rights. They have the right to speak just as often and just as much as racists like Yiannopoulos or Richard Spencer. There has to be equal treatment of these groups even though the right wing groups are, because of their publicity stunts, gathering all of the attention while quietly left wing groups such as the Palestinian students are being shut down or—
Moyers: You’re not at peace with some of the behavior on the other side, either.
Moyers: You’ve warned about the moralism that’s appeared in some college courses. And I know you have expressed some concern about so-called trigger warnings.
Scott: Well I think trigger warnings assume that students are fragile and need to be protected from difficult ideas. I don’t think students need to be protected from difficult ideas. And I think the problem of trigger warnings is that they have been used to police what’s taught in classes, to avoid subjects such as rape, violence, race — these need to be discussed.
Moyers: What about minority students who have experienced considerable hostility growing up in an inhospitable culture, who have been silenced or marginalized by that hostility, and want colleges to be safe spaces against the hostile culture?
Scott: I don’t think colleges are safe spaces. It’s one thing to have a fraternity house or a community center where students can go and talk about their shared experiences. But it’s another thing to have safe spaces in the sense that the university’s providing them with protection from what they have to experience and find ways of protesting and resisting.
Moyers: Let’s talk about what happened at Middlebury College back in March. Charles Murray, the controversial author of The Bell Curve, a book some critics denounced as racist, was invited to speak at this small liberal arts college. Much of the audience turned their backs on him and a couple of hundred students chanted, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!” and, “Your message is hatred, we will not tolerate it.” Murray finally had to deliver his talk via a video feed from a locked room. Ironically, perhaps, later reports suggested that the audience was driven less by Murray’s work and by free speech rights than by the larger political forces of partisanship and polarization and anger throughout the country. Murray himself said that he and his audience probably had something in common: They all hated Trump. As you know, the Harvard scholar Danielle Allen took a position that angered some of her liberal friends. She compared Charles Murray’s experience at Middlebury with that of the black high school students who integrated Central High School in Arkansas 50 years ago,. They had to be protected by the National Guard from a violent white racist mob. Danielle Allen said that Charles Murray and his sponsors were like those students who were trying simply “to go to school.” They were also “trying, simply, to keep school open. And in this moment they, too, were heroes.” Were they?
Scott: I think the comparison is a bad one. Because in the one case, Little Rock, these kids were not just trying to keep school open, they were trying to integrate the school. An all-white school. They were trying to go to school in a school that had historically kept them out. So this was a protest against a longstanding form of discrimination that required enormous courage and resulted in fact in the integration of the school. To compare that to students protesting a speech by an invited outside speaker who has had no experience of that kind of discrimination, a white man, an academic who has always held a university position and despite the criticism of some of his work has never been removed from the tenured position that he enjoys — with all the privileges of an academic life — to compare that momentary experience of being shouted down or treated unfairly as he was (because I don’t think they should have shouted him down) — it’s just a comparison that makes no sense to me. It raises the incident with Charles Murray to a level that is not at all comparable or in the same register as the experience of the Little Rock Nine.
Moyers: Earlier we both seemed to agree that there was a political motive to the right’s current attacks on the academy — and that what’s involved is Trump’s crusade to discredit his critics and opponents — as well as the right’s appetite for alternative facts to challenge knowledge-based and evidence-driven reality, which get in the way of their drive for power.
So there’s a politically conservative outfit named the National Association of Scholars that wants to “evaluate the academic elite.” They would eliminate peer review — that is, scholars charged to judge competence of professors and replace them with ‘experts’ who are “of genuinely independent minds.” They don’t want you scholars assessing each other’s work, they want someone on the their side doing that. How does this play into the right’s attack on the academy and Trump’s crusade against knowledge?
Scott: I think the National Association of Scholars is the inside group that’s looking to transform the academy in conjunction with the outside group. I don’t think they are probably coordinating with one another or maybe they are, but I think the effect is the same. Bringing in so-called “neutral outside experts” to judge the quality of academic work seems to be impossible because it’s precisely within disciplines that the judgment and evaluation and regulation of academic work happens. If you’re not in the discipline, you have no way of knowing what the standards are, what the history of changing modes of interpretation have been, whether the work is following acceptable patterns of proof and evidence. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. Who are these neutral outside experts?” What is the standard of neutrality that they’re offering? Somebody who doesn’t know anything about history and therefore can decide that our book about slavery is well-done or not? Somebody who isn’t a scientist or who is a scientist but is not trained to understand how physics operate and whether string theory is a good thing or a bad thing. What constitutes neutrality on the part of these so-called experts which is better than the expert judgment of peers — people within the discipline who understand how and why scholars do the research that they do?
Moyers: So sum up the state of academic freedom in late 2017 as we approach the end of Trump’s first full year in power.
Scott: It’s under grave threat. And it’s under grave threat from many different directions. And it’s up to those of us in the academy who care about the universities and who love the teaching that we do, to somehow keep open that space of critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth — to keep that space open and protected from the forces that would destroy it.
Moyers: Thank you, Joan Scott.