“Deadwood: Academic Freedom and Smart People” offers a reading of the 2008 film Smart People as an allegory of what the humanities “do” as understood by the general public: the remembering of beloved but now distant or inaccessible things, such as the dead wife for whom the protagonist is in mourning, and using that remembrance to judge or refuse the present. The film suggests that the standpoint of the present must finally prevail, and yet that there is also a value in the characteristically crotchety (that is, critical) attitude toward the present that stems logically from this reverential attitude toward a neglected past. The question of how much value there is in the humanities' posture of perpetual critique—a posture embodied in the paradox of the “deadwood” professor who is successful precisely because of his failure—is crucial to the defense of academic freedom, the essay argues, given that academic freedom is not a constitutional right, but on the contrary depends on the public's goodwill, a goodwill that is perpetually at stake in struggles over common sense such as the struggle staged in Smart People. In other words, academics who want to defend their academic freedom need to extend their fight outside the walls of the academy, into the public sphere, and to take on the particular issues where academic opinion diverges most dramatically from ordinary opinion—for example, secularism and internationalism.

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