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Versions of Academic Freedom

From Professionalism to Revolution

Through his columns in the New York Times and his numerous best-selling books, Stanley Fish has established himself as our foremost public analyst of the fraught intersection of academia and politics. Here Fish for the first time turns his full attention to one of the core concepts of the contemporary academy: academic freedom.
Depending on who’s talking, academic freedom is an essential bulwark of democracy, an absurd fig leaf disguising liberal agendas, or, most often, some in-between muddle that both exaggerates its own importance and misunderstands its actual value to scholarship. Fish enters the fray with his typical clear-eyed, no-nonsense analysis. The crucial question, he says, is located in the phrase “academic freedom” itself: Do you emphasize “academic” or “freedom”? The former, he shows, suggests a limited, professional freedom, while the conception of freedom implied by the latter could expand almost infinitely. Guided by that distinction, Fish analyzes various arguments for the value of academic freedom: Is academic freedom a contribution to society’s common good? Does it authorize professors to critique the status quo, both inside and outside the university? Does it license and even require the overturning of all received ideas and policies? Is it an engine of revolution? Are academics inherently different from other professionals? Or is academia just a job, and academic freedom merely a tool for doing that job?
No reader of Fish will be surprised by the deftness with which he dismantles weak arguments, corrects misconceptions, and clarifies muddy arguments. And while his conclusion—that academic freedom is simply a tool, an essential one, for doing a job—may surprise, it is unquestionably bracing. Stripping away the mystifications that obscure academic freedom allows its beneficiaries to concentrate on what they should be doing: following their intellectual interests and furthering scholarship.

Read an excerpt.

192 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2014

The Rice University Campbell Lectures

Education: Education--Economics, Law, Politics

Law and Legal Studies: Law and Society

Philosophy: Ethics

Political Science: Judicial Politics

Religion: Philosophy of Religion, Theology, and Ethics


"With his customary flair and insight, Stanley Fish discusses essential contemporary issues of academic freedom. Fish’s views are consistently trenchant and illuminating. They should be required reading for anyone interested in these questions."

Robert Post, Yale University

"Stanley Fish makes a full-throated attack on conceptions of the academic’s role and academic freedom that depart from the job description ’teaching and research in accordance with the standards of the discipline in which I’m engaged.’ Fish demurs to more grandiose alternative job descriptions, such as revolutionary, social critic, public servant, or exceptional human being. Once academics move beyond the standards of their discipline, then according to Fish, they no longer are functioning as academics or entitled to any freedom unique to academics. For academic freedom is nothing more than the freedom necessary to fulfill the academic’s role, which is defined by the standards of his or her discipline. Fish’s argument is one that every academic should confront and, in my opinion, should accept."

Larry Alexander, University of San Diego

"In this bracingly clarifying book, Stanley Fish shows why the concept of academic freedom, as it is widely invoked, is radically incoherent. He follows this unsettling revelation by convincingly demonstrating why academic freedom makes sense only if it is understood as the freedom of academics to do their distinctive jobs--intellectual analysis, research, and teaching. In the process he shows why academic freedom must not be confused with saving the world."

Gerald Graff, University of Illinois at Chicago

Table of Contents


1. Academic Freedom Studies
The Five Schools

2. The “It’s Just a Job” School
Professionalism, Pure and Simple

3. The “For the Common Good” School
Academic Freedom, Shared Governance, and Democracy

4. Professionalism vs. Critique
The Post-Butler Debates

5. Academic Exceptionalism and Public Employee Law

6. Virtue before Professionalism
The Road to Revolution


Academic Freedom, the First Amendment, and Holocaust Denial (a talk given by the author at Rice University, April 2012)

Works Cited

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