In "Conspiracy Theories 101" (NYT Op-Ed, July 22), Stanley Fish gives an
idiosyncratic interpretation of academic freedom, limiting it to the freedom
to decide what to study. It does not include, in his view, the freedom to
"embrace and urge" a viewpoint in the classroom, because to do this is to
"proselytize," to "indoctrinate," to engage in "partisan advocacy."
If universities were to enforce this restrictive interpretation, it would
mean that biology professors could not explain their reasons for accepting
evolutionary theory rather than "creation science"; physics professors could
not profess their belief in (or against) the Copenhagen interpretation of
quantum theory; and so on.
Fish would surely protest that he did not mean anything so absurd. He meant
his restriction to apply only to political questions, as shown by his
indications that what professors cannot do is promote "partisan political
ideals" and "urge political action." It is on this basis that he would argue
that professors should not be allowed to tell their students that they
believe the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the Bush administration.
However, even with this less obviously absurd interpretation, Fish's
position is untenable. The question of who was responsible for the 9/11
attacks is a purely factual question, and if professors are prohibited from
giving their answers to some such questions, academic freedom has been
Fish would presumably reply that answering this factual question by pointing
the finger at the Bush administration would have political implications
("throw the criminals out"). This would mean, however, that professors could
not endorse the official theory, because this endorsement would also have
political implications ("don't throw them out, because they are not
criminals"). Would Fish really suggest firing all professors who have let
their students know that they accept the official account?
Fish has raised a red herring. All sorts of questions about which professors
routinely and rightly express opinions, such as the evolutionary nature of
our universe, have political implications. Fish's criterion would result in
professors being gagged on most questions of importance.
The appropriate question to ask about professors who give their opinions
about 9/11 in the classroom, whether to embrace or reject the official
theory, is the standard one: Do they do so in an academically responsible
manner, supporting their opinions with evidence in a way that could be
defended before their peers?
David Ray Griffin