Our Best Hope: A Conversation about Academic Freedom with Professor Steven Pinker

May 23, 2023 | Interviews

Our Best Hope: A Conversation about Academic Freedom with Professor Steven Pinker

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist who conducts research in visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. Currently, Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard. He has won numerous prizes for his research, his teaching, and his books.  He is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, a Humanist of the Year, a recipient of nine honorary doctorates, and one of Foreign Policy’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals” and Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.” Professor Pinker is also a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance.  I was able to recently interview the esteemed professor to get his thoughts about free speech, academic freedom, and other related topics. 

Howard Muncy: You were part of the founding membership of the Academic Freedom Alliance for the March, 2021 public launch. Why did you choose to join? 

Steven Pinker: There are efforts by individuals or small groups to repress academic freedom and freedom of speech. There are many people who want to resist those efforts, but they cannot do so individually because they could be targeted themselves. So, there is a need for an organization that both musters larger groups of people to push back against the encroachments on academic freedom and to serve as an invitation to others to know that they are not alone. There are many, many people, perhaps a majority, that want to preserve academic freedom, but they often get shut down by a smaller number of activists and extremists. 

HM: Just weeks ago, The Boston Globe announced “New Faculty led Organization at Harvard will Defend Academic Freedom” and The New York Times proclaimed “Promising Signs for Free Speech on Campus.” These headlines were in reference to the newly minted Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard University, an organization that you also helped form. Can you describe for our readers what that process was like, why this group was needed, and what you hope the council will accomplish? 

SP: One of my colleagues, a historian named Flynn Cratty, decided that there needed to be a coordinated organization at Harvard to support colleagues who have been attacked for expressing their opinions.  This organization would establish the presence of a substantial number of faculty that believe academic freedom is imperiled and it needs a defense. The Council will educate our students and colleagues about the importance of academic freedom and apply a pressure on administrators, deans, the president, and provost that will act as a kind of counterweight to the pressure that activists often exert.  For example, when a dean is pressured to make concessions to a noisy and inconvenient group of activists to try and make them go away, we will be pushing in the other direction to encourage administrators to make a reasoned decision instead of simply choosing the easiest way. 

HM: Alongside the AFA and The Council on Academic Freedom, an emergence of several new groups committed to free speech on campus has occurred in the last few years. Many of your publications and talks are about progress and how things get better, and have gotten better, over time. Do you view this emergence as a positive one of committed individuals rallying around a principle, or should we be cautious in that outlook and a bit more concerned that the rapid rise indicates just how severe the problems are at universities and colleges around the country? 

SP: It is better that they exist than they don’t exist, but it is a shame that they must exist in the first place, right? Ideally, academic freedom would be baked into the very concept of universities so that professors advocating academic freedom would be redundant, but they are not. We do need them. The combination of the policing of opinion and organizations that push back against it is not a positive development. Obviously, it is better that there is pushback to this regressive force rather than it be allowed to steamroll our universities, unobstructed. 

The way I would relate this to an understanding of progress is that things do not get better by themselves, but if we apply what you could loosely call “Enlightenment Ideals,” the use of reason and science to improve human flourishing, we can gradually succeed. We retain the innovations that make people better off and we try not to repeat our mistakes. That makes progress possible. And indeed, in many spheres, it has happened. But it is not a general historical process that just takes place by itself, instead it is the result of specific innovations, specific efforts. So, the most optimistic view would be that the orgy of repression that we have seen in the last four or five years will be a temporary extreme that these organizations help to reign in. And we have lived through periods of repression of speech before, around the time of World War I when any pacifist opinion was criminalized quite literally, during the McCarthy era, during the late sixties and early seventies when there were demonstrations on campuses, sometimes violent, to shut down controversial speakers. Our best hope is that, thanks to these organizations, the current wave of repression will also be temporary. 

HM: In the last few years, you have presented to a wide range of audiences at a variety of events. This includes being a keynote speaker at a Heterodox Academy conference, a featured speaker at the recent Academic Freedom Conference at Stanford, and you have been on numerous shows including Bill Maher’s Real Time. Are there common reactions, perhaps observable values, that are shared by majority of your listeners that give you hope that the divisions on free speech and academic freedom are not as great as they sometimes are projected to be? 

SP: I get enormous amounts of support when I appear in these forums. Many of them, of course, have audiences that are inclined to be supportive, such as the annual meetings of associations devoted to academic freedom. There is I believe, in the wider public, a mammoth amount of support for free speech and academic freedom resulting from a kind of a repugnance against the attempts to shut down differences of opinion. In the absence of polling data though, we do not know whether it is a minority of noisy activists that are repressing academic freedom or whether this is a substantial generational change where younger cohorts really lack the commitment to free speech that we hope to encourage. 

HM: In your book The Blank Slate, which is now just a little over 20 years old now, a phrase really caught my attention, a concept you named the “euphemism treadmill.” Several academic freedom controversies have involved the use of a word by a professor, a vast majority of these examples occurred in an educational context. Yet it is one of the leading causes for students to run off to administrators and claim harm. Is there a connection to this current trend and what you were writing about 20 years ago? How does the modern acceptance and use of words affect the environment of academic freedom?

SP: Yes. In fact, it was almost 30 years ago that I introduced the term in a New York Times op-ed back in 1994. There have certainly been a lot of the attempts to police speech, single out particular words that have become problematic or obsolete. Sometimes these efforts go to comical lengths as when terms like “field” are marginalized because it reminds people of slaves working in the fields. Even the replacement at Harvard of “housemaster” at the residential dormitories by the resident dean is a case of a formerly acceptable word being tainted by one of its many meanings, in this case of a slave master. Fortunately, some of the new guidelines, many in fact, have been smothered before they could come into effect.  But those guidelines would ban scores or hundreds of words because of some remote association and I believe that represents a kind of decadent phase of this movement. 

It becomes a question of signaling. Are you with it enough to know which terms are now acceptable and which are now tainted or taboo. One of the dangers of the constant tainting of terms is that it turns innocent speakers into targets of accusations of racism, even though they may not have a bigoted bone in their body, just if they have not caught wind of the latest change in linguistic fashion. That is a reason that I argue that we should be circumspect about replacing words, because it does no good to have larger and larger percentages of the population being branded as racist. That can only lead to people being alienated from academia, scholarship the press, and other elite institutions, particularly if they see that these groups are bending over backwards to tar them as racists. 

HM: You have certainly invested a lot of time and commitment into supporting efforts to protect academic freedom. As one of the most well-known scholars in the country, and as a dedicated teacher, I would like to hear your thoughts on why you think academic freedom is so important for a robust education. 

SP: It comes down to the fact that no one is infallible. No one is omniscient. It is part of human nature to moralize our own opinions, and in particular the opinions of our coalition, our clan, our tribe, to assume that we are wise, correct, and noble, and the people who disagree with us are stupid, ignorant or evil. Now, of course, if both sides think that, as they inevitably will, then they cannot all be right. Nonetheless, we know as a species that we can approach the truth despite these cognitive and moral limitations, because we know that science has advanced. We have discovered how to make vaccines, how to make smartphones, how to explore the planet. So, something has gone right. Well, what has gone right is the process whereby people express opinions and other people can evaluate them.  They test them empirically; they find flaws in arguments. If you disable that process by making the expression of opinions illegal, then you have crippled the process by which we can understand our world and therefore have put a brake on the possibility of human progress. Academic freedom, in other words, it is not just an individual entitlement. It is not just that professors have the right to say whatever they want, but rather that the whole reason that we have universities and scientific societies, and for that matter a free press, is that when a range of opinions can be expressed, the better that they can be evaluated. 

HM: Anything else that you would like to say about academic freedom, or anything else, that I did not ask, but that you think would be important for our readers? 

SP: I think that it is important that the AFA and other organizations not just end up as support groups, although that in itself is a valuable function because it can be horrendous to be the target of a smear campaign, which often happens when someone expresses an unpopular opinion. But these organizations must be clever in figuring out the levers of influence. In the case of public universities, the First Amendment is a legal bulwark against punishing free expression. In the case of private universities, there are often stated commitments in faculty handbooks, in public releases, and in statements of principles that activists for free speech can use to hold universities’ feet to the fire. They need to say, you are already committed to this and if you violate your own commitment to free speech by punishing a student or a professor, you are engaged in false advertising and we are going to sue you, or at least try to make life very uncomfortable. Organizations must figure out how to translate the sentiment for academic freedom into effective action. 

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