Sunday, March 25, 2007

Jottings on Academic Freedom

I recently came across this petition circulated by Academics for Academic Freedom:

'We, the undersigned, believe the following two principles to be the foundation of academic freedom:

(1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and

(2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.'

What strikes me about the petition is that the claim set forth in it appears to be blatantly false. These two principles are not the foundation of academic freedom; which is good because (2) is clearly wrong.

The foundations of academic freedom are the requirements of inquiry and the conditions of teaching. It is not unrestricted, precisely because it is founded on these things, and this, for instance, is why academic institutions need to have procedures for upholding ethical standards in inquiry. (It is, however, unrestricted in terms of result of inquiry: but this is very different from an unrestricted liberty, since it simply means that we should not make inquiry futile by demanding from the beginning that it have certain results.) Likewise, academics are not free to spout any old thing they please -- they have responsibilities as academics that must be fulfilled. One of these responsibilities is the responsibility to teach competently in such a way that students will have an education that is up to reasonable standards. If a teacher's speech or even behavior is such that it interferes with this end, the institution has every right to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal. The real constraint on academic institutions, it seems to me, arises from two things, an obligation with regard to inquiry and a strong prudential consideration with regard to teaching:

The straightforward obligation is the obligation not to interfere with the pursuit of truth, so long as that pursuit does not use unethical means.

As a matter of prudence it is necessary for the institution to give teachers and researchers a great deal of leeway and benefit of the doubt, and to provide clear procedural protections, in order not to create a suffocating environment that enervates the teachers and researchers and blunts their effectiveness.

Failure to uphold either of these principles is a severe fault. But at the same time academic institutions have an obligation to the students, namely, an obligation to provide a reasonably good education in an environment reasonably conducive to learning. And this obligation, it seems to me, requires us wholly to reject the second principle in the petition. Academic institutions have standards to uphold, and are empowered to uphold them, and rightly so. Academic freedom does not negate this; it merely holds the academic institutions themselves to very high standards with regard to how they uphold their standards. This is not a small thing; particularly since many academic institutions at least occasionally fail in this regard. But we must not argue for something more extreme than can be rationally supported.

It always bothers me, in fact, when academics argue for unrestricted academic freedom, because it is often an obvious attempt to argue that academics should be free of any intellectual responsibilities to others, which is something both absurd and frightening for an academic to claim. Academia is founded on the intellectual responsibilities we have as communities of inquirers, teachers, and students. The only thing that is unrestricted is the end, truth; and everything else in academia is restricted precisely in order to be subordinated to this end given the conditions and circumstances of the human mind. By all means let us support academic freedom; but let us not do so in terms that ignore what the purposes of academia are.

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