The Power of Public Discourse


Part One – Freedom and the Public Forum

Much has been written/said about free speech as a constitutional principle and its importance to the foundations of democracy. I would like to approach the significance of speech from a different but complimentary perspective – speech as a social practice and its role in securing a free and “enlightened” society. Since the 18th century the concept of enlightenment has historically been associated with the liberating effects of scientific inquiry and the subsequent release from superstition. In his essay “What is Enlightenment” (1784), Immanuel Kant gave the term an interesting twist when he defined enlightenment as the release from one’s self-incurred tutelage and the courage to use one’s own reason. Kant’s formulation is a decisive break with the mainstream definition insofar as he defines enlightenment not in terms of theoretical “truths” but in terms of the process of will-formation –i.e. courage, resolution, practical judgments. Thinking then is a form of doing and reason is performative.

Furthermore in elaborating on the concept of enlightenment Kant moves beyond the “separate” individual to that of the judging public. Individuals who have been accustomed to act only under the authority of others will likely stumble as they attempt to “bootstrap” themselves into intellectual independence. Thus Kant says that it is far more likely that “an entire public” will enlighten itself if it is only left in freedom! The freedom in question is the freedom “to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.” To make public use of one’s reason sounds simple yet the concept of public-ness contains a normative structure in which one who would make “public use” of her “own” reason addresses others without limitation on either the content of discussion or the scope of the audience. Public-ness is a proscription requiring inclusiveness.

Enlightenment then cannot be a personal project. Public argumentation tests one’s capacity to acknowledge others as having an equal claim to intellectual independence. In this context the touchstone of truth becomes dissent because it is through disagreement or “difference of opinion” that we encounter the efforts of others to use their own understanding.Validation is a reflexive process where disagreement signals the necessity to rethink the grounds of one’s judgments. Only that which survives the process of criticism can have rational authority and we are only free to the extent that our actions are guided or governed by rational authority. In all other contexts we act under the “tutelage” or governance of others.

The creation of rational authority, thinking in community with others, is a social practice not reducible either to the political domain nor to the domain of personal morality. The public use of reason cannot be fully protected by any constitutional mechanism. Because it is a cultural and social practice it is vulnerable to threats and erosion and must be continuous reaffirmed. This vulnerability to institutionalized power indicates the importance of preserving the individual’s freedom to contribute to public discussion without the weight of institutional authority. Institutions themselves must be continuously subject to scrutiny and prevented from monopolizing and covertly regulating the voice of criticism.

Part Two – Academic Freedom and Academic Governance

I want now to switch to the connection between thinking freely and academic freedom. I have argued that thinking freely requires access to communication with others. Because of the importance of education to the exercise of democracy universities occupy a special position within a free society. Chief Justice Warren in Sweezy v. New Hampshire expressed this point: “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth”. Universities develop more than technical skill and expertise. Universities are a community of scholar/educators who design a curriculum conducive to the development of social actors capable of responsible action. Academic freedom is at heart of what makes this complex educative mission possible. Yet academic freedom is not just a matter of individual faculty making individual choices about their personal research/teaching agendas. Academic freedom requires that faculty be able to act in community with other faculty to collectively guide the educational mission to the achievement of socially responsible ends. Academic freedom requires academic governance. The norms that protect the generation of research/scholarship and the integrity of the curriculum can only be generated where faculty are permitted the freedom of public discourse and can only be implemented where faculty are permitted to act under the guidance of the rational authority generated by their own governance structures.

Faculty governance is not simply a tool for getting work done through committees. Faculty governance requires a forum where norms and policies can be openly debated, critiqued and affirmed. Without genuine faculty self- governance the educative mission of the university cannot be conducted with integrity and all other roles including administrative roles lose their purpose.

Recently the faculty of Rensselaer have been placed under a directive to redefine “faculty” and rethink the meaning of governance and our role in it. As a prelude to this inquiry our faculty senate has been suspended and therewith the means to conduct a public discourse on the merits of the directive and the merits of the processes proposed to replace our traditional governance structure.

In a recent article in the Poly, Dean Eddy Knowles argues, that as a consequence of Presidential leadership everything at Rensselaer has been subject to improvement except governance. The implication seems to be that by suspending the “shared” structure that characterized governance in the past and undertaking a top-down process of governance reconstruction we can ‘improve” governance. But faculty governance is not a technical process that can be improved by an elite and then passed on to others to utilize as a tool. If Immanuel Kant is to be believed enlightened public discourse is the only genuine source of improvement of which the human species is capable. Perhaps before we can meaningfully begin “rethinking’ governance we need a public discussion of the meaning of “governance” and the purpose that governance is to serve in the context of a university. Unfortunately we have lost the forum within which such a discussion could take place and thereby much of the academic freedom that such forums make possible.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s