American Studies Association’s Resolution Stirs Call for a Post-Academic Freedom Framework

On December 4, 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) issued a resolution embracing the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Inherently flawed as that resolution was, it stirred it initiated a call for a post-academic freedom framework in The Harvard Crimson. The Crimson column called for “a more rigorous standard” of “academic justice” to supplant academic freedom. In its closing paragraph, the piece went on to embrace the ASA’s resolution quoting that document's language about the hardships that confront Palestinian students and academics.

The piece brings to the forefront two issues: (1) academic freedom and (2) the concept of justice. Both are actually closely related.

Academic freedom is crucial to expanding the frontiers of individual and societal knowledge. Allowing students to be exposed and introduced to a broad range of ideas and thought allows them to expand their knowledge and cultivate their capacity to think critically. The Crimson column notwithstanding, academic freedom is at the heart of the academic enterprise. It is a necessary ingredient for any competent approach to developing students’ intellectual abilities. Any erosion of academic freedom, no matter how well-intentioned, cuts off potential ideas that could strengthen students’ decision making capability. In the long-run, such erosion would risk erasing a centuries old framework that has been indispensable to the academic development of free individuals all across the world.

Justice is also important. Justice requires an impartial and equitable treatment of facts and evidence in an intellectually honest fashion. All relevant evidence and facts must be considered. To do less ignores the implicit ethical obligation that gives life and substance to justice. On these grounds, the piece could have gained leverage in discussing its originally-cited issue, noting that such an obligation precludes passing off personal views or hypotheses  as rigorous academic findings.

At the same time, it is on these grounds that both the ASA resolution and columnist’s support of that resolution fall short. Challenges facing Palestinian academics and students are well-documented. However, the ASA’s attribution of the cause of that hardship is simplistic, subjective, and inaccurate. Its conclusion ignores the complex historical roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict (of which the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is a subset) Israel’s many efforts to reach accommodation, and the intifada that saw waves of suicide bombers deliberately target Israeli civilians on buses, in restaurants, and in other public places, that made the security fence necessary. Unless history and context are considered, no judgment can be complete, much less impartial.

Reaching decisions that are truly impartial and equitable can be challenging in many situations during one’s career and life, particularly when issues are complex and information is nuanced. Cognitive biases ranging from confirmation bias to anchoring can also inhibit such decision making.

Academic freedom can help overcome those challenges. By introducing students to a wide range of ideas and thoughts that they might not otherwise encounter on their own, academic freedom puts students in a better position to develop the knowledge and intellectual capacity to make decisions that can reasonably be described as both sound and just.

The ASA’s resolution fails that test. The call to supplant academic freedom with “academic justice” is a false choice. It is little more than an appeal to allow a flawed resolution to be advanced without meaningful discussion of its shortcomings. If that appeal were successful on a broad scale, the intellectual grounds for dissent would be weakened. In turn, the reduced intellectual opportunity for dissent would impede the exchange of ideas that helps students gain the intangible ability to make just choices.





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