The Freedom in Academic Freedom

By Eric Taylor

While we would all agree that academic freedom is important, what exactly do we mean by “freedom”?  Do we mean that we can be free of the guilt associated with representing others, which is ultimately the guilt of not being a representative of the other?  Do we mean that we can be free of the complicity in instrumentalizing knowledge? Our knowledge, mind them! But really, whose knowledge?

Are we concerned about changing the world, or stooping down to the level of the beltway ideologues that gave America such policies as “pre-emptive” war and the “right to hot pursuit” – the same folks that talk about sovereignty as if it is not just an analytic?  The same folks that would surely wish to subdue the university sounding board with their “full spectrum dominance.”

The academic freedom that is easily expressed is the knee-jerk claim to studying whatever we want to study.  If we want to criticize the state, then no ideologue is going to tell us we cannot!  If we want to study oppressed people, and not interface with agents producing the systemic conditions for such oppression then we will not interface with such agents!

Or should we?

In an article for Harper’s Magazine entitled “Army of Altruists”, anthropologist David Graeber presents an historical argument about the origins of the university crises during the sixties.  You know that whole myth about Berkeley: the one that does not include the fact that Mario Savio admitted that all he really cared about was impressing his girlfriend so that he could get laid; the myth that does not include any real mention of what was happening at the lowly “state schools.” Yeah, that myth.

Graeber asserts that the crisis was a result of the expansion of the academy reaching a point of saturation.  He contends that the expansion of the university systems in the United States was a response to reaching the frontiers of Western expansion.  Once all of the homesteads were claimed – the natural resources cornered – the university emerged as a new space for marking out ones own.  I would add: hence the term “intellectual property.”

Moreover, Professor Graeber argues that the reason why so many people from Middle America would not vote for a smug Ivy League “aristo-slacker” like Kerry, and instead choose to support big business right-wing props, is because they cannot see their children ever occupying a space in the “academy.”  As Graeber argues, the competition surrounding entrance into such a space of legitimacy is constantly growing more competitive – as evident by the extensive and very profitable test prep industries that have emerged to capitalize upon such demands, I would add.

Despite this demand though many Americans are like Sarah Palin’s soon-to-be son-in-law who dropped out of high school to take up a lucrative job in an oil field because he knocked up Palin’s daughter. Now, that is someone many breadwinners can relate to.  Most Americans can visualize their children providing for their future families through such occupations. Set aside your ferment about how Sarah Palin did not know what the Bush Doctrine entailed.  If you want to understand how American politics works, recognize that people identified with her. And you – most likely – identified with Obama.  And Obama, he joined his church to be part of a community.

In Bush’s words: “I think most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living room for the next four years explaining policy.”

In this lies the crux of Graeber’s argument about why underprivileged youth enlist to hitch a ride around the world on a rust bucket named after some former president, because they want to do good in the world.  Just like you.  Just like me.

This last assertion is actually quite an obvious recognition, but it is one that is given far more depth when we consider how increasingly difficult it is to stake a claim in the academy.  Where we might see the university as space for constructive critique, the military becomes a space to do good in the world for that young man whose other options include holding a plywood sign on the side of the road with the words painted in red on it, “I need work”.

Professor Graeber goes on to reveal how he came from a meager family.  He was not privileged.  His parents had little more than labor to sell, and like many people he wanted to rise out of his working class.  Like the many who join the Army to do good, they also do so to break out of the bonds of a monotonous life of manufacturing and service jobs.  You know, whatever work they can get.  Like Graeber, I come from a meager working class family.  My father has a prized Harley and puts chains on cars during the winter in the Sierra Nevada.  He hammers nails during the summer.  My mother works in a grocery store and is filing for bankruptcy.  I know someone holding a sign on the side of the road everyday because their sleep apnea prevented them from enlisting in the Army.  Last year at this time I was living in my car in the hills of Berkeley because I graduated with a degree in Anthropology and had no immediate job offers.

How many people face similar fates when they leave the University?  I would not be surprised if the same fate met me again when I left the New School with a graduate degree.

I have been meaning to write Professor Graeber to ask him, now that he has been given the boot from Yale for “presumably” being an activist, whether he would ever consider running for political office.  In other words, now that his academic freedom has been infringed upon, would he ever commit to a Jeffersonian Revolution?  Now, this might sound absurd for many, likely even Professor Graeber.  But imagine, a politician who believed in a “real globalization.”  Yes, you heard me right, “real globalization,” that – as Greaber put in an article in The Thistle entitled ‘What Would Real Globalization Mean’ – involved “the effacement of borders” and the “unfettered movement of people, products, and ideas”. Not a globalization that – as he told Charlie Rose – involves “trapping people in places where you then remove social security, creating people desperate enough to undersell each other, and allow corporations to move around to take advantage of them.”

This last sentiment reminds me of the plight facing many untenured professors at the likes of Berkeley because they have no union to represent them, a condition that has been made possible by the fact that so many post-docs are willing to undersell themselves for the few positions that open at such elite brand schools.  What happens to the rest of these post-docs?  They either go into applied-whatever, or are forced into positions of obscurity at a community college – which do have unions – because they have families to support, too.

So, I ask again, what does freedom, in “academic freedom” mean to you?

For those who follow me, imagine, David Graeber for President in 2012.  I can already see the t-shirts, “Forget about Nader – Draft Graeber!” Or simply, “Draft Graeber!”


Eric Taylor
is a Master’s student in the Anthropology Department at the New School for Social Research.