Keith Whittington

Freedom and Wokeness on Campus

Air Date: April 12, 2021

Academic Freedom Alliance chair Keith Whittington discusses how to preserve freedom of speech and humane discourse.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Today we’re hosting professor of politics at Princeton, Keith Whittington. He’s also the chair of the Academic Committee of the newly launching Academic Freedom Alliance, an organization you can find more about online. The basic intention is to foster intellectual honesty and intellectual freedom, like the name of the organization. Keith, it’s a pleasure to finally have you on The Open Mind. Thanks for joining me today.


WHITTINGTON: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.


HEFFNER: In launching this non-partisan Academic Freedom Alliance, I want to just ask you from the gate. So we understand this is a group of people who would self-identify as Democrats or Republicans, liberals, conservatives, libertarians. Is it as diverse as people who are anarchists as well? I mean, how diverse is the forming committee of this 200-plus faculty cohort?


WHITTINGTON: Yeah, we made a real effort to build a broad coalition across the ideological spectrum in order to defend these issues. We do think that faculty across the political spectrum are under threat. I think people understand that they have risks. Those challenges may come from different directions, but there’s a lot of common ground here in terms of worries about the future of academic freedom and a desire to protect it. We really wanted to build an organization in which we found that common ground and build some real bridges across the political spectrum.


HEFFNER: If you were to describe the type of episodes that inspired the creation of this group, right, not specific instances at Princeton or Yale or University of Texas or University of Alabama, but the different types of incidents that are having a chilling effect on academic freedom that you and your colleagues on faculties around the country feel it and students too. What are the different kinds of episodes that have led to this consciousness we need to support the academic and intellectual freedom of the faculty?


WHITTINGTON: Unfortunately, we’re still seeing some of the same threats that we saw a hundred years ago in American higher education. There’s a new technological spin, new political spin on some of those threats. But the threats themselves are really fairly persistent, remarkably persistent in some ways, although I think we are a little better off now than we used to be on some dimensions, worse than others. So at the very core of academic freedom and what we’re most concerned about protecting for academics is protection of scholarship and the ability of faculty to do their research without censorship, without sanction for what it is they’re finding. They need to be able to examine controversial, sensitive topics and reach the best understandings that they can about what the truth of those matters are. Even if the result is it might offend people because their results are challenging to mainstream values or expectations. Likewise faculty need protections for the classroom and what they’re doing in terms of teaching students. And again, they need the class to be able to talk about controversial topics in the classroom setting in which they have a freedom to explore those issues with their students. Finally, it’s faculty have a responsibility to be able to speak in public both as private citizens talking about political affairs more generally, but also talking about their research and things they have particular expertise on, and again, they need to be able to talk about controversial subjects in public without universities threatening them with sanctions as a consequence of things they might say. As you might expect the rise of social media has made that last category a particularly sore point for faculty. Lots of instances of faculty saying controversial things on social media that winds up generating controversies, but we’re still saying controversies around just research and teaching as well, where pressure is brought to bear against university administrators to fire or sanction university faculty for things that they are saying in public. And as a consequence, hampering their ability to do the very center activities of their jobs which is to engage in scholarship and teaching.


HEFFNER: When we get into those gray areas, Keith, of what is conduct appropriate for the classroom, right? Is that different from what is conduct appropriate in the research lab, right? Is there a common set of values that your alliance wants to apply to the classroom and the research lab so that there is a real coherent understanding of what faculty should be embracing as what is fair game, fair ground for them to be on?


WHITTINGTON: There’s certainly going to be some differences between what you can expect people to do in research and what people ought to be doing in the classroom. The concept of the particular substance content of what it is they expose students to it’s like, they’d be somewhat different. Certainly the process is going to be somewhat different on the whole, you certainly expect in the classroom though, that faculty, for example, or not bring to bear outside topics to talk about in class that have no bearing on the relationship or the subject matter. They’re supposed to be discussing you can’t use that captive audience of your students to go off and talk about unrelated things. We expect the engineering professor to spend his time in class talking about engineering, not talking about politics and the like. On the other hand, you also need the freedom to be able to explore difficult and controversial topics you needed to have students have the freedom to express themselves on their understandings of those topics in order to try and bring them around to thinking about it in a more sophisticated way than they might coming in in the first place. So I think our expectations of how classroom dynamics are going to work is a little different than what we expect in the research and scholarly environment, but in both places, we expect faculty to be very professional. We expect them to represent professional standards and reflect professional competence and what it is they’re teaching and what the research is that they’re doing


HEFFNER: The morality or the ethical barometer of what is conduct appropriate for the classroom in discussions that are really hot button or sensitive, when it comes to forming some kind of understanding of what is appropriate and what is crossing the line, is your alliance taking a position on that as it relates to communicating about you know, racial, cultural, or economic difference in a way that is offensive to people or in a way that is destructive rather than constructive?


WHITTINGTON: I think as a group what we’re concerned with is defending those outer boundaries of what is professionally competent behavior in the classroom. There are very important discussions to be had among faculty and including others beyond the faculty, including students and others, about how best to act in the classroom. And there certainly are choices to be made within the boundaries of what’s professionally competent, what’s professionally ethical. There are choices to be made about how do classroom discussions in a better or worst fashion. We ought to be having those conversations. I’m confident that many members of this organization will want to be having those conversations. And there’s some expectation that there’s going to be an evolution and change over time about what’s the best practice about how to talk about controversial topics in your classroom, what counts as a controversial topic and what is it that people are going to be particularly sensitive about and how to approach that?

Our concerns as an organization is not primarily going to be to try to identify here are the best practices and everyone ought to adhere to them. Our concern is to say there’s a range of practices. There are at least within the field of professionally competent practices. And as long as people are operating within those bounds they shouldn’t be sanctioned, even though they might well be criticized that they’re not doing it as well as they could. And they ought to do a better job. And I think that kind of criticism of course is perfectly fair play,


HEFFNER: But when you say it’s fair play, you’re fair game for that kind of criticism. I think that the kind of line of demarcation here is where there is conduct that crosses a boundary that is not just to be criticized but is not necessarily to be punished in the town square, but that is going to require sanction or some kind of response from the community. And you know, the question I have for you is where does it become necessary to take a faculty member and put him or her on leave or not be in the classroom anymore? I mean, what are those absolute lines that would, you know, have a clear basis of understanding that even though that is protected under the First Amendment, that is not conduct for a professor to engage in on Twitter or in the classroom, right?


WHITTINGTON: Right, you’ve put your finger on a very important point, which is that there’s a difference between what’s protected in the First Amendment and what it is we expect faculty to be doing in the classroom. Those are two different standards importantly, that there are things that are completely lawful speech, speech that’s protected by the First Amendment if you were to engage in them in the public square that nonetheless we do not expect faculty to be engaging in when they’re trying to teach a class, part of what academia is about is weeding out an awful lot of speech that is perfectly normal for average Americans to be saying in lots of other contexts, but that we don’t expect to be occurring within a specific academic environment. So certainly there are some very classic kinds of boundaries to be thinking about in terms of where faculty have gone too far. And as a consequence are appropriately sanctioned by their universities for their speech. So, as I mentioned, if possible for faculty to be using their classrooms as platforms to talk about unrelated, controversial subject matter. So again, that sort of engineering professor who decides he wants to spend the class talking about politics, for example, is engaging into kind of speech it’s obviously lawful and constitutionally protected, but totally inappropriate in the classroom. And a university could have quite appropriately sanction somebody for using their classroom in that way, in a way that violates professional standards and it’s inappropriate. Likewise that expectation is the faculty when they are teaching or teaching professionally competent material. And so you can imagine a faculty member for example, trying to teach a class in which they’re teaching students things that the profession as a whole thinks that the facts are wrong. So imagine a Holocaust denier who was also a 20th century European historian and he’s teaching 20th century European history and explaining to students that the Holocaust never happened. That’s lawful speech. We can imagine somebody publishing articles in a newspaper making these kinds of arguments, totally inappropriate for somebody to use, to use their classroom to convey that kind of argument because it’s professionally incompetent speech and universities could appropriately sanction somebody for engaging in that kind of behavior. Likewise, if faculty were attacking students in class, so you were directing racial slurs toward members of the class and otherwise harassing individuals in the classroom, that’s obviously inappropriate, professionally incompetent, and universities would have a real stake in removing a professor who did that. Even like aside those kinds of problems that might happen more in the background, for example, a faculty member who was not grading students fairly because they were biased against people of particular races, religions, or political orientations, for example, and as a consequence were marking them down on tests and the like. I think university I think, properly, they could actually find good evidence that that was happening, could reasonably sanction the faculty member for using their classroom and in that kind of way. So there is some speech that we expect people to be careful about how they are using the classroom context. And we expect the kind of care that they’re excising in that context to be different than the kind of care they would be exercising when they’re on their Twitter, personal Twitter feed, for example.


HEFFNER: I think there’s a difference also between, you know, preserving a safe space in which your students cannot be intellectually challenged and safe as a cop-out to, you know, deal with challenging issues, and then the kind of safe space which should be preserved, which is not going to de-humanize anyone.




HEFFNER: So the instances that have occurred in recent memory, both with the academic and journalistic communities involve incidents in which words were expressed that are dehumanizing to the person hearing them, even if they’re not being directed at those people. So, I mean, is that fair? Is it, is it not fair that, that in the sort of modern sensibility, there is a sensitivity to the expression of words, and of course the person who hears a word when it’s not directed at them, or a sentiment for that matter, doesn’t have to be a word, may not want to confront the person, uttering it and may want to take it through the official channels of that university or institution, so, you know, where is the, where is the gray area when it to communications that directly or indirectly de-humanize people and having a process whereby academic freedom is both encouraged and we understand that academic freedom should never give license to, or justify dehumanization, even if the faculty member were to disagree that what they did constituted dehumanizing someone or something.


WHITTINGTON: Right. Well, of course it’s possible for an individual faculty member to disagree with the judgment of their peers about whether or not they’ve engaged incompetent behavior in general, or professionally disturbing behavior. Or as you say, at this pace, a behavior that is dehumanizing in some ways. Universities need procedural protections in place in order to evaluate what actually happened and make some assessment as to whether or not what happened is within the realm of professional competence or whether or not a faculty member has engaged in behavior that we don’t expect to take place in the classroom. And there are important, as I said, there are important conversations to be had about what the best practices actually look like. And so what’s the best way of teaching sensitive material, for example. There is some kinds of materials you want to engage in, in class and some kinds of topics that need to be discussed that are precisely about situations and words and philosophies and facts about the past that have been dehumanizing, that you want students to encounter, material in which people made arguments that are from our perspective dehumanizing and oppressive. We don’t want to shelter students from encountering that kind of material. The challenge from a faculty member’s perspective is how to teach that material in a way that engages students so that they can grapple with and understand the materials and understand the arguments being presented without themselves feeling like they’re being dehumanized as a consequence of confronting that material. Faculty sometimes make mistakes in doing that, but some people are not nearly as careful as they should be in doing that again. I think we had to have good conversations about how best to do that, and that’s going to be changing over time, given the particular sensitivities of students. And as that evolves, you need to evolve in your own teaching practices and how you try to teach them. And of course we should never expect faculty to be themselves directly attempting to de-humanize their own students. That would always be inappropriate and wrong. But I think we’re all, we’re not always as careful as we should be about distinguishing between instances in which one individual is trying to dehumanize another individual through their rhetoric or actions and trying to expose students to material that genuinely does involve efforts to dehumanize individuals, but it’s not directed to trying to demonize the particular students in the classroom for example.


HEFFNER: Keith you’ll hopefully appreciate this as a political scientist and someone who studied history. It’s really confounding to me that the term wokeness has been associated with some sort of avant-garde new high standard of conduct, you know, because the founding of woke actually derives from the Wide Awakes, that was a group of young men who supported President Lincoln and his movement to abolish slavery and support for the union, the preservation of the union in the civil war. And it’s striking because of the fact that the Republican Party has virtually no knowledge or care for the fact that woke derived from a Republican, the person who’s really considered the forbearer or forefather of Republicanism. Now I’m not so sure liberals know this, but the truth is that when you hear someone in his outgoing communications on Twitter, like Secretary Pompeo criticized wokeness in the context of multiculturalism and liberalism, what was wokeness, in the mid 1800s and reconstruction, the Wide Awakes were fighting for the abolition of slavery. So if you believe in the abolition of slavery, you are by definition woke, according to that 19th century definition. So, you know, to posture yourself as anti-woke is actually to posture yourself as anti-human rights and anti-conservatism if you believe in the rendition of conservatism that is honoring natural law and every universal, you know, person’s right to exist and not be enslaved. I just wonder how you read that because there’s so much, so much history lost in the discussion about those lines that are being crossed and what is wokeness and what is ethical et cetera.


WHITTINGTON: Yeah, no, I think of course this is something we’re always losing is nuance when we talk about these subjects, as well as historical lineages about where these words come from, where these concepts come from, what the arguments are they’re attached to them. Unfortunately it is almost inevitable in public political discussions that you sacrifice that nuance, you sacrifice that complication. Things get misrepresented in various ways. It’s extraordinarily frustrating from a scholar’s perspective. I have recently been giving talks precisely referencing the Wide-Awake clubs as, as a part of this lineage of antislavery thought and the political battle to eliminate slavery which obviously resonates right up to the present. But of course, the idea of woke in its current incarnation includes not only a bad history of thinking about slavery, but also more recent controversies as well. We’re inevitably going to have disputes about some of these recent controversies, but I do wish that it was possible. And in universities you strive for trying to turn down the heat a little bit on some of these debates, take each other a little more seriously and charitably, get past the throwing around pejoratives, and think a little more seriously about the nuances of the arguments that are being presented and recognize that many of these issues are complicated. They’re often not easy. And sometimes we can even find that there’s more common ground than it, than it first appears if you can get past these initial efforts to simply be dismissive of our opponents.


HEFFNER: Well, Keith, I hope one of your first undertakings as chair of the academic committee of the alliance is to emphasize that wokeness was born out of that history, because this is where the woke definitions intersect with your work. Because the question is, is my professor woke enough; is my study woke enough? You know, that would be a fair understanding if woke was ethical and moral, right, but I think that a lot of people have conflated woke with not ethical or moral, but again, some kind of a status. The abolition of slavery or the anti-slavery movement, wasn’t really about status. It was about morality and ethics. So I guess my question is how, how did the woke definition get so far off the train track of what it originally meant? I mean, do you have a sense of that? You’ve been in academia for some time you’ve written a lot of books about free speech. How did it get, you know, get off the train tracks so so much?


WHITTINGTON: Well, it’s certainly tied down to a specific political movement and specific sets of political arguments that in some aspects of which are very mainstream in which I think there’s a tremendous amount of support, in other aspects are more radical and as a consequence have less political support. Part of what I find when I’m talking about a lot of these issues, whether it’s a term like a woke or it’s a term like cancel culture are they also in the campus free speech context, safe spaces and trigger warnings, you often have to then ask people, what specifically, what do you mean when you’re referencing this? When you’re talking about hate speech or you’re talking about wokeness, tell me more about the specific thing you have in mind, because it turns out people are often referring to very different things. And, and when we’re talking about wokeness, for example, the people who are advocating for it and the people who are denouncing it often have very different things in their own heads about what it is they’re talking about.


HEFFNER: I mean, I think your example of the Holocaust denier is really important here because, you know, Abraham Lincoln said when new views become true views, I’ll adopt them. And I think that’s true of morality as well, not just economic data, you know, what your unemployment statistics are for a given month. And so, I mean, the, the Wide Awakes as they were conceived were dedicated to canceling yes, canceling right slavery. So, you know, just as there ought not be a litmus test for a us Senator or a, you know, a judge on the basis of idiosyncrasies or eccentricities in their worldviews, there are certain basic ideas that we want to accept. And I think one of them should be that anyone who’s in the classroom should accept that normatively, subjectively it was constructive for society for the Wide Awakes to cancel slavery. And I mean, if you were to apply for a job, whether it’s at Mississippi State or Yale, or, you know, University of Oklahoma, and you were to say, or demonstrate your view, that slavery should not have been canceled, I don’t think you should be hired. Point blank. So, you know, when, when we think of this, this idea of defining woke you know, in similarly understanding the value of black lives and black human beings, I mean, do you agree that when we do put definitions on the bones, like you just said, that there should be some criteria assessing people who are educating our youth, whether it’s grade school or college profs.


WHITTINGTON: Well, just start with that last point, I think we want to distinguish between grade schoolteachers and college professors, right? They’re engaged in a very different enterprise. You’re dealing with a very different student body. And there are important distinctions to be drawn about what we want and expect out of the two, such that we don’t necessarily think that the same standards ought to be applying to college professors, as we think are applying to elementary school teachers. But I think the larger point is certainly a correct one that on the whole that societies evolve and develop in part by moving as to what counts what’s acceptable behavior in society and what doesn’t, what’s politically on the table and reasonable to debate and what’s not, and things wind up getting taken off that agenda. And people operating in mainstream society understand that and ought to expect it in the process, by which we make these changes are often messy and sometimes heated and divisive. But when we’re on the other side of them, you do form a new consensus and the new consensus puts some people on the margins. And that’s how things operate. I think that’s totally fair and perfectly reasonable in certain kinds of contexts. I should also note though, that part of what, and academia does that as well, right? There are ideas that as a professional scholar working in a particular discipline, for example you understand and have been rejected and you would be regarded as professionally incompetent, that if you’re trying to teach students those ideas, and you’re making arguments on behalf of those ideas that everyone in your profession understands have been long rejected. On the other hand, we also want to make space for people who have very unorthodox and unconventional views. That’s, what’s been attractive about academia.


HEFFNER: We’re running out of time, but I just wanted to say, Keith, I think it’s important to distinguish between revisionist history, revisionist morality, and you know, when revising the record in some way becomes antithetical to civil society. He, we could go on forever. I really appreciate the work you’re doing at the Alliance. I encourage our viewers to check it out. Professor of politics at Princeton, Keith Whittington. Thank you for your time today.


WHITTINGTON: Appreciate it. Thank you very much.


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