“Academic Freedom, Knowledge Production & Public Perception” – Sorcha Brennan
To argue for academic freedom, we must first reach a consensus on what academia is for. What is the inherent value of intellectual work produced from within the humanities? Latour’s article “Why has critique run out of steam?” provides a point of departure for Professor Berteke Waaldijk in the first seminar of the 2023/2024 Transmission in Motion series. Latour laments how critique has become obsolete in a world already too suspicious of academic knowledge. We now encounter “instant revisionism” before the dust settles and any facts have been established (Latour 2004). The great irony here is that Latour himself pioneered the critical project of Science Studies in the mid 1980’s as an effort to curb what he saw as an ideology within the academy bent on scientific positivism.
However, letting the constructivist cat out of its proverbial bag now renders it increasingly cumbersome to convince the public of the validity of any truth-claim or knowledge produced from within institutions. Hard-won evidence can now be contested under the very guise of “debunking” that Latour stood for and empirical facts like global warming are weakened by rampant conspiracy theories. Once more, the metamorphosing urge of capitalism weaponizes the very critical apparatus sent to destroy it. Simultaneously academia is regarded by outside actors as a model of objectivity, certainty and consistency, a welcome respite from the ensuing chaos of an increasingly polarized world. The reification of university as a bastion of scientific realism also wounds academic integrity. This why scholars like Latour advocated the term “matters of concern” (research objects deserving of our attention) over “matters of fact” and the importance of accounting for the partiality and situatedness of all knowledge (Haraway 1988).
The double-edged sword of ‘Impact’ is another debacle. Plagued by the marketisation of education and universities cozying up beside industry, scholars wish to defend their right to teach, learn and study without the pressures of profit lurking in the shadows. Societal relevance is almost always a section in grant applications yet, irrespective of the fact that present-day issues are often a motivation behind lines of research, this imposed obligation can harm the free flow and experimentation of knowledge production. It also begs the question – how do we assess the “usefulness” of different modes of critical inquiry? What organizational bodies or external forces deem which research gets to be societally relevant? This debate played out to dire consequences in the UK, where Sunak’s government has launched a crackdown on so-called “rip off degrees”, read: humanities subjects in low-ranking regional universities (Coleman, 2023). In a neoliberal landscape where funding is primarily contingent on impact, research trajectories can become easily subsumed by the reductive metrics of cost-benefit analysis.
This liminal ground between constructivism and hard certainties is where many of the hard battles pertaining to academic freedom are fought. Where does this split perception of academia leave researchers who are required to both defend the validity of their work and its use for society while also retaining academic independence – affording space to interrogate the nuance and messy complexity of their findings? In the Stolker Committee report, Waaldijk and her team offer a set of recommendations centering the duty of care held by the scholarly community, university management, and government. This rationale can be understood through the feminist framework of Puig de la Bellacasa, insisting on care as a “significant notion to appreciate affective and ethico-political dimensions in practices of knowledge and scientific work” (Puig de la Bellacasa 2017, 3). Part of this work entails the treatment of research objects not as some untouchable fact (debunking processes may be necessary) but as “things we cherish” (Latour, 227). Academic freedom and ethical practices of care are mutually dependent and co-constitutive. Waaldijke does not claim to resolve the outlined conundrum but certainly offers us a direction towards which academic freedom may be reinscribed into the public agenda.
Coleman, Adam. “Britain’s Tory Government Wants the Humanities to Be a Luxury for the Rich.” August, 2023. https://jacobin.com/2023/08/rishi-sunak-humanities-degrees-crackdown-education-inequality.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575–99. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Critical Inquiry 30 (2): 225–48. https://doi.org/10.1086/421123.
Puig de la Bellacasa, María. 2017. Matters of Care: Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds. Posthumanities. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stolker, Carel, Stoker, Janka, Waaldijk, Berteke. Powerful and vulnerable. Academic Freedom in practice. (UvA Research 2023)