Prashad, Vijay. (2014). “Teaching by Candlelight.” In Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira (Eds.), The Imperial University (pp. 329-341). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Should questions particular to the university – and just representation of the opinions of all members therein – focus solely on the issue of “academic freedom,” or something more? For Prashad, democracy within the university extends beyond this notion, and includes, for instance, an understanding of those factors that prevent some individuals from pursing a post-secondary education. Focusing on higher education in the United States, Prashad alludes to popular opinions on its problems (i.e. high cost of tuition), and how these lead to the narrowing of student opportunities to “enjoy the world of ideas and seek solutions to planetary problems and opportunities” (2014: 332), ultimately converting the university into a place of vocational training, rather than one of intellectual stimulation. Attention is also given to income inequality between university presidents and those occupying other positions therein, further transforming the university into something of a corporation, and justifying the use of liberal practices particular to this institution as being for the “pursuit of truth” (337). The author concludes with a call to action – a call for free higher education, a call for more cooperation and equitable resource allocation, and less hierarchy and militarism.
One term that, perhaps, could have been further unpacked in this text is that of ‘academic freedom.’ For Prashad, the concept is rooted in the ability of an academic to be protected by the university as a member of the tenured professoriate. As a tenured professor, one can, as Prashad demonstrates, teach a course for which the dean of one’s faculty disapproves, or retain a job when confronted with allegations of wrongdoing. Here, one notes this notion of freedom, then, is a right specific to the person that is the ‘academic.’ Yet, further on, Prashad alludes to a claim made by former University of Washington president Dr. Raymond B. Allen, who said only those engaged solitarily in the pursuit of truth should be granted academic freedom (337). This presents an interesting paradox for the notion of ‘academic freedom.’ After all, an academic might indeed be free to pursue any ‘truth’ they so desire – the fact that a couple or so of ‘radical academics’ exist in many university departments, as highlighted by Prashad, speaks to this effect. But that there exist means of force, which may be used to protect an academic’s freedom, suggests that when these particular means see their place questioned by the vast majority of academics (rather than by simply a minority of radical academics), even if these questions have been obtained through the ‘pursuit of truth,’ then the use of force might be curtailed such that ‘freedom’ becomes restricted. Furthermore, ‘academic freedom’ as Prashad has presented it suggests that it is solely those academics that have been protected by the university that are truly ‘free’ to research as they wish: yet, this overlooks factors, such as the types of research funded, which might limit a tenured academic’s ability to truly express themselves ‘freely.’
Finally, attention must be given to the comparison made of the US higher education system with that of other advanced industrialized countries, for Prashad’s comparison brings the issue of affordable higher education closer to home (i.e. Canada). Having a highly subsidized, public higher education, in and of itself, while a great step, cannot be the best, and certainly not the only, means of making higher education more accessible and affordable, as recent student strikes in Quebec have shown. There, higher education is a public good, and the government pays, according to Prashad, somewhere on the order of 55 to 70 percent of college bills: even so, numerous student strikes concerning tuition fees have occurred in Quebec. Here, one might something more than material considerations – be they government subsidies or otherwise – is necessary for proper democracy in the context of higher education. While it might be said Prashad has Marxist inclinations (i.e. because of the desire to teach a course on Marxism) – and thus roots notions of democracy in material affairs and capital –, one should also note that in this case – and, more specifically, in the case of the Quebec student protests –, perhaps attention should be given to the importance of ideology in the construction of an equally accessible system of higher education.