The Judith Butler Affair

How to represent a university

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One should not brag. One doesn’t do that in Sweden. But I run pretty good courses, and I have for about twenty years. Student evaluations have always ranged from “very good” to “the best course I ever took at the university.” I’m happy to see that this pattern has continued since I returned to Sweden four years ago.

One reason why my courses work so well is that they are my courses. I run them the way I want, according to my own judgment, without asking for permission from anyone. I honestly thought that was the whole point. I didn’t know I was supposed to defer to someone else’s judgment and teach the material decided on by some committee. I didn’t know I was legally required to do what they said.

I always thought of myself as a representative of the university in the same way that Edmund Burke thought of himself as a representative of the electors of Bristol. After he was elected MP in 1766 Burke turned to the very people who had voted for him and insisted that a “representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Like Burke, I would betray the system I represent if I didn’t use my own judgment and instead deferred to the opinion of some committee.

The reason I have such outrageous self-confidence is that I’ve been trained. My teachers were some of the best people in the business — Robert Dahl, Charles Lindblom, James C. Scott, Steven Lukes, Susan Strange, Alessandro Pizzorno, Alexander Wendt. It would never have occurred to any of these guys that they could not teach their own courses in their own fashion, and it has until now never occurred to me either.

Isn’t this an elitist view? Of course it is, or rather a meritocratic view. It is meritocratic in the same way that all professions are meritocratic. We expect pilots to be able to land planes, bakers to be able to bake bread, and so on, and we don’t subject their decisions to democratic control. Many things in society should be subject to democratic control, but not the activities of professionals, not their activities in and of themselves.

Only someone who fails to understand that a course is an intellectual activity could ever come up with the idea that reading lists should be subject to gender quotas and made into legally binding documents.

Who should be teaching our courses? Teaching robots who follow a pre-set curriculum decided on by some committee or free-thinking intellectuals who use their own, Burkean, judgment? You know what, let’s ask our students!


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