Filed under: Democracy | Tags: Academic Freedom, Bartleby the Scrivener, Charles Dickens, Denis Rancourt, Hard Times, Herman Melville, John Henry Newman, Mr. Gradgrind, Stanley Fish, The Idea of a University, University of Ottawa
In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.
In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”
I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”
—Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853)
Denis Rancourt, the embattled activist physics and environmental science professor who looks to lose his job at the University of Ottawa because of his unorthodox and subversive pedagogical philosophy, is becoming an international nuisance to his soon-to-be former employers. Rancourt (who, it should be said, has previously courted controversy by minimalizing global warming as an imminent threat and labelling it the concern of solitarily the ‘First World white middle class’) is under fire for ‘squatting’ a first-year Physics course, ignoring the department syllabus in authoring the course, dispensing with conventional grading (everyone was to recieve an ‘A+’) and focussing on ‘student-driven learning’. Claiming insubordination as an academic right, Rancourt found little sympathy from the university administration, who arrested him on campus and led him away in handcuffs. His plight has raised myriad questions about academic freedom and dissent.
In his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish has this to say on the subject of academic freedom:
In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.
It’s no surprise, then, that when Professor Fish offered his own editorial in put to Rancourt’s case, he reached the following conclusion:
It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.
Professor Fish does not discriminate between the University and any other workplace. Indeed, his opening gambit suggests that since Rancourt’s behaviour would get him fired from a law firm, he should expect similar treatment from his faculty. It is as if Fish adpated his views on higher education from what Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) called ‘the one needful thing’:
“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”
Yet Fish seems to take this caricature as—ahem—fact. Certainly, with an increasing dependence on corporate donations and emphasis on producing so-called ’employable’ graduates, the University has parted somewhat from its historical role as an essential ally of democracy. To defend against this erosion, we can turn to no more eloquent exposition than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:
Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill….
[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. (My emphasis)
Academic freedom, then, is not a workplace-specific mandate to render research and instruction more efficient, it is grease for the engine of democracy. It is the synthesis of fact and fancy, the petrie dish of society. Academics and students have a pivotal role to play in that construction. This is why education is an inalienable and universal human right, while working in a law firm is not.
No wonder, then, that Rancourt’s dissent haunts the university like Bartleby’s obstinance haunts his former employer. It seems to me that Rancourt is doing his best to uphold the spirit of Newman’s concept of the University. Granted, he is severely insubordinate—on such a shocking and incomprehensible level that the administration of the University of Ottawa appear at a loss on how best to handle him. Indeed, Fish’s evaluation of Rancourt’s subversion as ‘comical’ coincides with the popular opinion, if the comments to any news story touching this case are to be believed. Rancourt stares at Bartleby’s dead brick wall behind the pale screen (albeit with a bit more panache), willing it to change with a simple act of defiance, as would-be peers and allies nonchalantly transfer him to the dead letter office, prison and anonymity.
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