Weaponizing Feelings and New Trends in Academic Freedom: An Interview with Jonathan Zimmerman

Jan 23, 2023 | Opinion & Commentary

Weaponizing Feelings and New Trends in Academic Freedom: An Interview with Jonathan Zimmerman

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

Jonathan Zimmerman is the Judy and Howard Berkowitz Professor in Education at the University of Pennsylvania. Professor Zimmerman has published a wide range of works on the history of education and is recognized as one of the foremost scholars on the topics of teaching and higher ed. He is also a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. I was able to recently interview the professor to get his thoughts on academic freedom, its history, and to identify his concerns about the current educational landscape. 

Howard Muncy: In this interview series we are trying to get different perspectives from a variety of disciplines and your work has examined the history of education in America with focus on the collegiate and university level, so that may be a place to start. Threats to academic freedom have existed over the continuum of American history, particularly since the early 20th century. What are three events or movements that stand out in your mind as real dangers to academic freedom prior to 1975?

Jonathan Zimmerman: The obvious eras to talk about are World War I, the so-called McCarthy period of the Cold War, and the 1960s—all eras when academic freedom was under a huge threat. During World War I, both high school and college teachers were fired for alleged pro-German sentiments, even though many of them did not have them. A good example is Charles Beard at Columbia University. Beard was one of the leading historical thinkers of his time and pressures from World War I created such a great rift that he was pushed out of Columbia. The McCarthy era brought new pressures and there are still a lot of myths about it. One of the myths is that people’s academic freedom was protected, and it absolutely was not. There were hundreds of people that were let go or pushed out because of their alleged connections, if they had any or not, to the Communist Party. Most of the people that were pushed out were not spies for the Soviet Union nor even communists at all. Then you get into the 1960s, and I think there is a lot of mythmaking about the Sixties too. You find a lot of teachers who are dismissed for anti-war activity. This occurs even after the Tinker v. Des Moines case—the 1969 Supreme Court case that said that neither students nor teachers shed their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse gate.  In my book on controversial issues, I found after the Tinker decision there were teachers let go all over the country because they were allegedly pacifists or trying to sway their students against the war. 

HM: With those important examples, and I know history is not always easily divided, but a neat division seems to emerge in my mind. There is the long period between World War I and the end of the Vietnam War with notable spikes in threats to academic freedom that are connected to an environment shaped by international conflicts. This is followed by a period from around 1975 through the early 1990s. In that time frame, threats to academic freedom existed, but incidents were more isolated and appeared on a less frequent basis. A new set of problems have accompanied the rise in technology in the next period, essentially the internet and social media age which we are in now. What do you view as the old and new threats to academic freedom in this modern internet age?  

JZ: I am not the kind of person who likes to blame everything on the internet. Academic freedom has always been tenuous, contested, and delicate. But to your point, there is no question that social media introduces a new set of challenges. It suddenly becomes quite easy to malign somebody very quickly and have thousands, or sometimes even millions, of eyeballs see information in ways you could not before. So, I think absolutely, social media and the internet largely have created a new set of challenges. 

But I would also add that there is something important that is not necessarily linked to social media. I think that it is fair to say that in more recent years we have seen challenges to academic freedom from both the right and the left. And I do believe that is fairly new. In the examples that I gave you earlier, most of the challenges during World War I, the McCarthy period, and especially the Vietnam era came from what you could fairly call the right. I think the picture you get today, and this is not just a product of social media, you see challenges from both parts of the spectrum.  

So just think about our current moment. What is the biggest challenge to academic freedom? I would argue, following the research of PEN America, the biggest challenges to academic freedom are what they call these educational gag rules with states passing laws saying that teachers cannot teach divisive concepts. What is a divisive concept, who gets to decide? So, this is an enormous challenge, and if you look at who is behind it in state legislatures, they are almost entirely on the right. However, I think it is also important to note that there are enormous challenges that come from the left. The idea that we need to protect young people’s feelings from allegedly dangerous or yes, harmful ideas, I think you see that coming from the left on campuses.  For years and years, I have been warning my fellow people on the left, because that is where I live politically, that if we start to censor people based on what we think is going to protect our young from “harm,” that the right is going to weaponize that with law—and that is what happened. Look at these divisive concept laws, they are all in that idiom. You know, we do not want to teach anything that is going to make somebody “feel guilt or anguish,” those are the words from these laws. And what was first used by the left, and now on the right, is something I call the “weaponizing of feelings.” Just to be clear, I think the right-wing threats are more dangerous because they now have the force of law, via these awful “divisive concepts” measures. But in no way am I trying to apologize for the left-wing version. Quite the contrary. I think people on the left have a lot of responsibility here for essentially setting the template, setting the example for this sort of censorship that we are seeing coming from the right now. 

HM: Three of your latest works include Free Speech: And Why You Should Give a Damn (2021), The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America (2020), and The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (2017).  Those three titles capture various aspects and much of the debate that surrounds the significant and important role of academic freedom in education.  Obviously, there are public controversies like the recent incident at Hamline University that attract a lot of attention and many more that are dealt with confidentially away from the public eye. While those types of incidents get most of the coverage and concern, what about this enormous problem of self-censorship?  Self-censorship seems to be an issue that is difficult to measure, but have you written or do you have thoughts about its influence on education?   

JZ: I do not think that it is conjecture. I mean, I think that FIRE and people like Sean Stevens have done some really good research on this subject. When you ask both students and faculty members if they are afraid to express their views, both in class and outside of class, large numbers say yes. So, whether self-censorship is happening is no longer an interesting question because we know the answer. The interesting question is why it is happening and what to do about it. If you are talking about young people, again, I do not want to invoke social media in every answer, but if you interview students or look at the survey literature, this is clearly part of the dynamic. And I get it. If I were 19, I would be afraid about expressing my views in public, because you can be maligned anonymously by thousands or millions of people. I do not know about you, but when I was 19, I really cared about what other 19-year-olds thought, especially about me. I think most 19-year-olds do. 

With the faculty, especially the tenured faculty, I have a little less sympathy. Sometimes I will write a piece on the subjects we are talking about in this interview, and somebody, often privately, either in an email or a private conversation, will say to me: “wow, that piece you wrote, you know, defending free speech, you really had guts”—or, sometimes some other body part. My response is always the same: I do not have guts or that other body part; I have tenure! I mean, please, what is tenure for? For those without tenure, I get it. You do not want to alienate people that could have a hand in determining your academic future and I get that. If you are an adjunct, or if you are on the tenure track, but not tenured yet, I understand the caution. But, you know, I think that even people with tenure are scared, and that is really tragic and I do not know what to do about it. 

HM: You were a founding member of the Academic Freedom Alliance and we have discussed the fact that you have studied and published about the history of education in colleges and universities. What is the historical influence of groups like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) with their rise in the 1910s and modern organizations like FIRE, founded in 1999? Have they made a huge difference in the trajectory of higher education? What are your hopes for the AFA and other groups that are trying to address threats to academic freedom?

JZ: I think there is a growing and a complex landscape of organizations around these issues, and I am very glad about that. I think it is a fantastic development. But I am a historian and historians are always wary about predicting the future. We also know how long things take. Change is hard, takes a long time, and nobody should expect it overnight. That is not the way these things work. I do think these organizations that you are mentioning, and even though they are in their nascent stages, show a growing concern on the part of the professoriate. 

My problem right now is I feel that concern is not bipartisan enough. If you look, for example, at Heterodox Academy where I am also a founding member, you will see that most of the membership is either somewhere in the center or somewhere on the right, with a few on the left-center.  But straight-out liberal Democrats, unreconstructed McGovernites like myself, there are very few to be found.  That is the heart of the problem with the landscape right now. And I am not criticizing these organizations, I think they are fantastic. I am criticizing my own tribe, i.e., liberal Democrats. The newer organizations have not been successful in attracting people like me. If you look at who is most vocal on these issues, and even if you look at the founders of these different organizations, you will find that most of them are in the center or somewhere in the center-right with very few straight up political liberals. I think that is the next nut we must crack. 

HM: What is an important work that has shaped your understanding about the history of academic freedom and what are you working on next? 

JZ: Historians are conservatives, no matter their politics. They are conservatives in a dictionary sense: they want to preserve and they like things that are old. I will have to say that on academic freedom and history, I think Ellen Schrecker’s 1986 work No Ivory Tower is still really the standard. It is such a good book that has not been replaced. Anyone who wants to understand the history of academic freedom, I think Ellen Schrecker’s work is the first place to go. 

With respect to what I am working on now, I have one big book left in me given how old I am. I am starting a soup-to-nuts history of schools and universities during epidemics and pandemics. I am sure there are many other people working on similar books now. For me, there is an autobiographical dimension because my wife is an infectious disease physician. What I am trying to figure out is not just how schools and universities have addressed epidemics in the sense of how they tried to alleviate the consequences, but what they have taught about them. And because we are talking about schools and universities, there will be academic freedom questions that run through all of this, because they always do. Do people have a right to criticize the university’s response to epidemics? Well, of course, you know, we say they do, but sometimes people have been fired for doing so. Anytime you write about the history of education in this country, academic freedom will be there. If it is not, you are not looking in the right place. 

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