The Judith Butler Affair

The Swedish government is a threat to academic freedom

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


The Swedish government wants to make universities into gender neutral institutions. Employees and students should have the same rights and opportunities regardless of whether they are men or women. What could be more praiseworthy? Who could be against that? Yet the government policy is a threat to academic freedom and thus to the whole point of the university.

Reading the government’s proposal you learn nothing about the way the good intentions are translated into practice, how they work in the classrooms. For example: all around the country academic departments have adopted quotas for the literature to be used on reading lists. A commonly used rule of thumb says that at least 40% of the texts should be written by female authors. Since the reading lists are legally binding documents, teachers who fail to follow them are in breach of contract.

It is obviously important to include women’s perspectives in the university curriculum, but this is the wrong way to do it. The value of a scientific work should not be judged by the identity of the author but by the value of the content of the research results. To question the value of research just because it is produced by men reminds you of the way “Jewish science” was questioned in Germany in the 1930s. Swedish universities ought to think twice before they go down that route. Besides, it is not at all clear that texts written by female authors are written from a female perspective. After all, women, much like men, use a number of different perspectives when they write. To assign readings by means of a quota misses that obvious fact.

And the consequences can be perfectly bizarre. At the start of the fall semester this year, the board of the Department of Political Science at Lund University, where I work, decided that my course in the history of ideas should include a work by Judith Butler, a well-known contemporary feminist. Nothing wrong in that, you might say, except that my course was about romantic and conservative reactions to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Butler is a post-modernist, and critical of the Enlightenment Project in her own way, but none of the weeks I had prepared had space for her. Besides she is far, far too difficult for my students. In the end I simply left her out of the course. It may have been a breech of contract but at least the course as I gave it had a coherent structure.

When the Student Union gets involved these problems are aggravated. Through their representatives on the boards of academic departments they can influence the reading lists, and if the texts are not actually used in the classrooms, the teachers can be outed and the courses subject to investigations. In the end, it is the students, not the teachers, who decide on the content of their education. It reminds you of the student-led, “revolutionary,” classrooms of the 1960s. The only difference is that in today’s Sweden it is the government that has made the student take-overs possible.

Sometimes one wonders whether the boards of academic departments even understand how reading lists work. The point of a university education, as least in the humanities and social sciences, is not in fact to teach truths or even facts. Truths change quickly and facts are these days most easily found on the Internet. Rather, the point of a university education is to teach students how to think. As long as you can think you can always find the facts, and the truths, you need. Thinking is best taught by confronting the students’ preconceived notions with alternatives and to force them to argue in support of their conclusions. Here provocative texts often work well. Thus a course with a reading list full of reactionary patriarchs can as a result of the discussions it gives rise to easily turn into a course on the experiences and perspectives of women. The government, and all feminist activists, must trust the teachers. We have the requisite training. We know what we are doing.

Here we need to make an important distinction. Universities are not only places where intellectual conversations take place but also ordinary work-places. Much of what happens in a university is a matter of administration; universities, that is, are hierarchical structures that distribute power and resources. Obviously women should have the same influence over this process as men. There should be just as many women in leading positions in the universities as we want there to be in parliament or on the boards of large companies. Sweden needs more female professors!

But none of these argument apply to the intellectual conversation, to the actual research. Here exercises of power are not permitted; you cannot impose your will by force. Instead, intellectual conversations should take place between equals. Or rather, the only authority that can be accepted is the authority that comes from the better argument, the better research. University courses provide an example. It is at the university that young people for the first time come to take a part in the intellectual life of their societies. That is how it should work anyway. That committees responsible for making decisions on reading lists fail to understand this basic fact is worrying. That university teachers themselves fail to raise the alarm tells you a lot about their addiction to government funding.

In other Western countries — and in much of the rest of the world — a teacher’s right to teach according to his or her own judgment is a taken-for-granted aspect of academic freedom. University teachers have Lehrfreiheit, the freedom to teach. UNESCO has passed recommendations regarding this right — recommendations which the Swedish government has promised to follow. But no Swedish university seems to understand what they are required to do, and the government itself has obviously no respect for academic freedom.

This is not to say that reading lists should look the way they have in the past. Yet changes cannot happen by means of quotas but must instead happen by means of arguments. To use a quota is to exercise power; to provide arguments is to participate in an intellectual conversation. Instead of exercising power over teachers and students, universities need to find new ways in which the content of reading lists can be discussed. In the end it must be the teachers who decide what they want to teach, but they must at the same time be prepared to be convinced by good arguments. Good suggestions, also from students, will improve the courses. No one can be against that.

“The right thought is better than the free thought,” say the gilded letters above the entrance to the auditorium at Uppsala University, but this is a false contradiction. What is right can only be discovered by means of a research process which is free. If you already beforehand know what the results will be, there is no need to investigate anything. But you do not go to the university in order to have your preconceived notions confirmed; you go to the university in order to learn how to think for yourself. Swedish universities must become arenas where young people confront the new, the strange, the unexpected. This requires free, independent, teachers who can initiate free, inspiring, conversations with their students.


Leave a Reply