A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Why Academic Freedom? Why Tenure? - E. C. Tolman

In recent years there has been a concerted attack, in the US at least, on academic freedom and tenure. From an administrative point of view, the target seems primarily to be tenure (as many administrators see it as an impediment to their power); while from a political point of view, the target seems primarily to be academic freedom (as many seek to censure discourse in all areas of society, and find it particularly difficult to do so in the academe). In my opinion, the academe is so vulnerable to these attacks because we have, as a group, failed to articulate the social importance of these mechanisms. Given that one might presume we were educators of some sort, and that we had a role in educating virtually all administrators and members of the government, this is a striking failure. I have my own thoughts on how best to articulate the importance of these ideas, but will save them for another time. At the moment I want to note a brilliant defense of  academic freedom and tenure delivered by Edward Chase Tolman.

Most of you have heard of Tolman as the man who popularized maze learning in rats, and transformed from a neo-behavioist into a "father of cognitive psychology." However, socially, he has a much more important distinction: In the hay day of the red scare, with McCarthy terrifying the country about the risks of Communism, Tolman was fired from UC Berkeley for refusing to sign a "loyalty oath." His prominence, combined with a steadfast resolve not to sign the oath and to support others who refused, played a crucial role in ending the conflict. (Tolman helped rally widespread financial support, involved several professional organizations, and the lawsuit eventually overturning the oath-taking requirement was Tolman v. Underhill). These events were widely reported on at the time, and their history has been reported in various places, including an article in the most recent Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, by David W. Carroll. David's paper mentions a convocation speech Tolman made at McGill University in 1954, which was later published in the American Psychologist. It is a great speech, and only 3 pages long. It gives one of the best defenses of academic freedom and tenure that I have read in a long time. It is conceptually savvy, and it is grounded in research evidence! Here is the main thrust, which I managed to get under 1,000 words:

… We "eggheads" … pledge ourselves, each according to his talents, to seek, to investigate, and to report. It is by this pledge and its resultant commitments that each of us, insofar as he can, seeks to make his contribution to the general welfare. But we do this in all modesty. For what is truth today may prove but half truth tomorrow. But even such half truths are better than none—better than prejudice, better than hearsay, better than rumor, and better than the blind self-seeking....

But, you may ask, what can I, as primarily a rat psychologist who has spent most of his working hours observing how rats learn mazes or reading about how rhesus monkeys or chimpanzees learn more complicated mechanisms, what can I contribute in the way of useful or sound conclusions as to how real human beings solve real human problems. My answer is that I think there are certain fundamental features of rat behavior and of monkey and chimpanzee behavior which throw very considerable light upon how we human beings meet our problems.

… [brief discussion of rat studies supporting the below points]

I shall advance two main propositions. (a) I shall claim that all new discrimination, new learning, or new problem solving requires, if it is to occur, the activity then and there of a pure cognitive or curiosity want to discriminate, to note, to see relationships, (b) I shall also claim that the arousal of such a pure cognitive want at any given time will be dependent in several different ways upon the governing practical needs which may then also be present. And I shall present first three such types of dependence.

a. Any active, practical need or want such, … will, up to a certain intensity,  tend to facilitate the arousal of a cognitive need or readiness.... That is to say, a somewhat hungry rat is more apt to notice food and to discriminate the correct path to it than is a completely food-satiated rat, although, as we saw above, a completely nonhungry rat can under some conditions observe the presence of food in a maze alley and later remember where it was…

b. When, however, a given practical need becomes too strong, too intense, the necessary, purely cognitive or curiosity want for observing and noting relationships seems to become less again. Thus, there is evidence that the very hungry rat is poorer about discovering the route to food than is the moderately hungry one.

c. Finally, when a given practical need is very strong, not only does it tend to interfere with cognitive curiosity for the finer details of the situation which would be relevant to this practical need itself, but such a very strong practical need also tends to interfere with any cognitive curiosity relative to other, perhaps then-and-there irrelevant features of the situation. Thus it was noted above that rats apparently did not note the presence or position of food when they were too thirsty.

Now let me suggest some human parallels. Suppose an individual, say a college professor, has been invited to make an address at a public meeting, perhaps a university convocation. What is his dominant practical need? I shall suppose… his immediate practical goal is that of writing a good speech…

[By] my second proposition… (a)… if our professor were not motivated at all by the practical desire to make a good speech, he would do less cognizing, less noticing of the true relationships than if reasonably motivated to obtain approval, (b) … if he were too motivated, too ambitious, too concerned about his own or the audience's reaction, would exhibit less pure truth seeking and would tend more to miss and slur over the finer distinctions, the true relationships, between his ideas than if he were only reasonably motivated. (c)… The professor, if overmotivated, would become blind to other features of the total situation, such perhaps as notes on his calendar which should have reminded him of important engagements.

… [But suppose further that our professor] is also driven by two other strong practical needs… he has a strong fear that his family may starve and a strong fear that what he says will lead him into conflict with the current climate of opinion. What will happen?... his fears will add another goal to his writing, and to achieve this secondary goal of playing safe his speech will be poorer and less objective… I would also suggest that all his other activities will be similarly affected… he will also become a poorer, more timid teacher, a blind type of research worker, and a neurotic committeeman. He will tend to fall down in all his activities. What I am saying is, in short, that any teacher, if he is to be what our liberal society "says" it wants him to be—namely, an open-minded, objective proponent of, and searcher for, truth—must then not be subjected to too strong economic fears or too strong social attacks.

And this, of course, is why we educators proclaim aloud the principles of Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. Academic Freedom and its sister concept of Academic Tenure assert that if teachers are to think and teach freely, objectively, and critically, they must have reasonable economic security and a sturdy protection against temporary public pressures and public clamor. We teachers will not do our jobs well whenever we are made into wee, cowering, timorous beasties.
Following this defense of freedom and tenure, the speech goes on:
But this is, of course, only one side of the matter. If society is to grant us this somewhat specially privileged position, then we ourselves must take care not to abuse that position. Society must demand that each of us work and think and teach to the best of his ability. And it must also demand that, having so worked and thought and taught, we shall speak out and freely criticize only when in our considered opinion it is our duty to do so….

… [But how can we overcome our current situation, a society dominated by fear and inclined towards scapegoating.] In such moments we assert that it is the intellectuals, the scientists, who are doing us in. So we seek to attack and to destroy them….

[There is one hope.]… It has been shown that if a human organism wants some positive goal and wants it passionately enough, then, though fear will get in the way… [it] will not wholly prevail. Even rats will learn (and sometimes faster) how to get to food when there are fearful electric shocks along the way. Hence, if our need as human beings for a liberal society be passionate enough, if our demands for freedom, for fair play, for honesty, for open minds, and for simple human decency really be overwhelming (and basically I believe they are), then whatever our fears and distorting mechanisms we men will continue to seek the truth…. For I assert that we, the people, all of us, intellectuals, and nonintellectuals alike, still want the truth and nothing but the truth.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent find! Goes to show that we need to know history to understand the present and act accordingly.