University : Anat Matar

Like Derrida, Badiou too emphasizes the fact that the philosopher is never a modest participant in a work-team, he never blurs his individual personality; on the contrary: she’s a political activist, totally present in her authoritative, enticing, violent words.48 In other words, acknowledging the political nature of truth is also acknowledging the fact that not every procedure which passes as proper leads the way to truth, and not all “valid” arguments are equivalent to one another. Giroux is perhaps the most explicit of the thinkers I’ve mentioned on this point: he urges academics, as intellectuals working in the public sphere, to turn the university into a pedagogical and political site of resistance—concrete resistance to the economy of corporations, to the militarization shaping our world (in general, and the academic world in particular), and to any other factor that stands in the way of radical democracy.

Such resistance demands a new political discourse, one that takes power seriously, understands politics as a matter of critique and possibility, reclaims democracy as a progressive and ongoing struggle . . . This may sound particularly utopian in an age of widespread cynicism and despair; yet hope is a precondition not only for merging matters of agency and social responsibility but also for imagining a future that does not repeat the present.49

It is here, at this point, that everything comes together. Giroux’s formulation presents a desire to protect the university, to keep it unpolluted by considerations of power, of the market, of militarism, of pandering to the regime. At the same time, it constitutes recognition of the pointlessness of such a faculty if it commits to making no commitment—for instance, if it cannot denounce crimes against humanity and act against them in a non-trivial manner.

“Freedom,” “equality,” “human dignity”—all these must take on a concrete, substantial, non-elusive form. In this sense too, the university-to-come is meant to constitute a continuation of sorts of the Platonic academy—in its recognition of the connection between truth and good, i.e., in the necessarily political character of knowledge. Forcing the strict dichotomy between constative and performative onto the university means sanctifying procedure and emptiness; it means fear of genuine responsibility. Given the total evaporation of any boundary between the theoretical and the practical, though, the role Kant bestowed on us should be kept in mind, that is, the refusal to surrender to those powers which run the state, the market, the “world.”

Part V

What does this analysis teach us of the cherished value of academic freedom? There is no easy answer. Martin Heidegger, in his notorious rector’s lecture of 1933, ridiculed this concept in the name of truth: “The much-lauded ‘academic freedom’ will be expelled from the German university; for this freedom was not genuine because it was only negative. It primarily meant lack of concern, arbitrariness of intentions and inclinations, lack of restraint in what was done and left undone.”50 As painful as this may be, it must be admitted that Heidegger’s complaint against the irresponsible indifference embodied in the term “academic freedom” is not farfetched.

Academic freedom as we know it today is the freedom not to ask troubling questions. More than enabling the truth to emerge, it ensures that no one will notice it even if it does emerge and that anyone vehemently insisting on laying claim to it will automatically be dismissed and denounced as dogmatic. In this respect, academic freedom grows on the same soil as formalism, procedure, an emphasis on sense (rather than truth) and an exclusion of the personal and the political from academic discourse. Even worse, it is sometimes abused precisely for purposes of harassing genuine critics. Ellen Schrecker provides a chilling record of the uses of this term during the McCarthy era, when academic freedom became a weapon of those who wanted to sack those “dogmatic” lecturers who embraced “the party line” in order to gain “political achievements.”51

Schrecker’s analysis should serve as a constant reminder of this unpleasant truth: when the flag of academic freedom is raised, the oppressor and not the oppressed is usually the one who flies it.52 At times when the boundary between the faculty of philosophy and the faculty of law—a servant of the government—is in the process of being blurred, human rights are rewritten to suit those who hold the power, and the people who give orders are precisely those who determine the definitions of war crimes. Therefore, a crucial role of the term “academic freedom” is fostering an image. It is an image that delivers the message that the university is not a conscripted institution, not a servant to power; it tempts us to believe that it is mere coincidence that only a tiny group of professors dare criticize the government. Reading “academic freedom” in this vein reveals liberalism as no more than a sophisticated version of authoritarianism.

Despite all this, an appeal to academic freedom should not be totally ruled out. On the contrary, I suggest that we break off from Heidegger just at the point where he refuses to recognize the genuine purpose couched in Kant’s notion of academic freedom: the claim for citizenship. Heidegger’s vision of the university is horrifying not only in its combination of spirit, army, work, and discipline, not only in its exposure of the particular spirit and the particular army meant to coalesce and combine them. What is horrifying is, first and foremost, the act of enlistment that precedes both this spirit and this army, which makes them both possible.

For it is this act that involves the total rejection of what Kant fully understood, of the message characterized above by Giroux: the oppositional stance of the university “to come” of active, genuine citizenship. It is indeed of the utmost importance to recognize that not all regimes are equal; that truth does exist, possessed of content that can be adhered to. And yet, the first element to be preserved in Kant’s vision of the university is refusal to serve the regime, any regime.

49. Henry Giroux, The University in Chains, 209.

50. Martin Heidegger, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” in Martin Heidegger and National Socialism, ed. G. Neske (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 8.

51. Ellen Schrecker, No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

52. As I already mentioned, the vast majority of Israeli professors who rejoice over their academic freedom do not find facts about the impossibility to run proper academic life in the Occupied Territories of any relevance to their pride about academic freedom in Israel. For an in-depth exploration of this hypocrisy, see Judith Butler, “Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom,” Radical Philosophy 135 (2006): 8-17.

53. Pierre Bourdieu, Homo Academicus, xii, xiii.

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