Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship
Like his three predecessors as president, Mark Mercer is, quite simply, a national treasure. A tireless defender of liberal learning and academic freedom, Mercer for many years wrote a newspaper column called The Cranky Professor. In it, as well as in his writings in academic journals and elsewhere, Mercer has become one of Canada’s most articulate defenders of the view that the protection of intellectual autonomy should be an essential part of any modern university, for both students and faculty alike.
Mercer tells us he became interested in issues relating to academic freedom when a colleague at his home university was asked to remove several cartoons from his office door. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published a series of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Protests in numerous parts of the world turned violent, resulting in some 250 deaths. Repercussions were still being felt years later when the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo became the target of terrorist attacks for publishing similar cartoons in 2011, 2015 and 2020. When a teacher in France showed some of these same cartoons to one of his history classes studying freedom of expression in 2020, he too was brutally murdered.
Mercer’s colleague, Professor Peter March, thought students in Canada should be given the opportunity to make up their own minds about such events, so he posted copies of the Jyllands-Posten cartoons on his office door. His university had the cartoons removed. As Mercer writes, this is not how academics and academic administrators involved in promoting research, scholarship and teaching, and who are supposed to understand the importance of academic freedom, should react:
“In ordering him to take down the cartoons, they were, I thought, violating Dr March’s academic freedom and dampening freedom of expression on campus simply out of bad judgement. Temporarily blinded in the fog of conflicting values, they would correct themselves once they understood what they were doing. … Yet with each new development in the March affair, administrators continued to betray academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus. They consistently sacrificed academic values in the service of such non-academic values as avoiding offense and promoting harmony, even when those non-academic values were hardly in peril.”1
Eventually, despite the support of Mercer and others, Dr March was brought before a tribunal tasked with determining whether he had harassed anyone or discriminated against anyone by acting as he had. When it became clear that the tribunal would have to find in Dr March’s favour, the complaints against him were withdrawn, thereby preventing what would have been a useful campus precedent.2
Since then, Mercer has worked tirelessly to defend academic freedom on Canadian university campuses. During his time as SAFS president, he has dealt with a large increase in the number of university job advertisements that have included non-academic requirements among their hiring criteria. Together with the SAFS board, he has worked unrelentingly to lobby university administrators, insisting that academic hiring should be based solely on academic requirements. In letter after letter to Canadian university presidents, he has pointed out, not just that hiring on the basis of non-academic criteria is wrongfully discriminatory but that doing so institutionalizes practices that have previously led to some of the worst outcomes in human history. In his academic writings, Mercer has also done a great deal to help Canadians understand why having access to a liberal education is so important. For Mercer, academic freedom is not only a necessary component of any liberal education. Liberal education itself forms part of the bedrock of any free, open and democratic society.
The idea of a liberal education goes back centuries. At its core was the idea that the education appropriate for a freeman was something more than just training in a specific craft or skill, no matter how expert that training might be. Free men needed to be able to manage their own affairs and make their own decisions. They needed to know something about the broader world in which they lived. They needed to be able to weigh evidence and, if they were lucky enough to live in a democracy, they needed to be able to vote responsibly. A liberal education was meant to give someone who aspired to be more than a serf or slave the ability to think for himself.
Today, of course, the concept of a liberal education applies not just to free men but to all of us. Even so, it still embodies the idea that students who aspire to live free and fulfilling lives need to learn how to manage their own affairs. They need to know something about the broader world in which they live. They need to be able to think for themselves. As Mercer understands it, it is this ability, the ability to think for oneself—or what Mercer calls the ability to exercise one’s intellectual autonomy—that should be at the centre of university life.
University professors are involved in both teaching and research. As Mercer explains, research includes three types of activity: inquiry, interpretation and appreciation. Inquiry is the activity of trying to discover the ways of the world. It is the effort we put into trying to describe both naturally occurring objects and processes, as well as human institutions and practices. It is the effort we put into trying to figure out how things in fact are. Interpretation is the activity of trying to appraise and criticize cultural artefacts and expressions. It is the effort we put into trying to read and imagine literary and artistic work. Sometimes this is done by thinking about what people believe and value. Sometimes it is done by creating new stories, new music and new works of art in response to what we have read or seen or heard. Appreciation is a type of intellectual and emotional response to the world we have come to understand through inquiry and interpretation. It can involve not only pleasure but also revulsion, and everything in between.
Teaching, in contrast, is the dissemination of the products of a professor’s research. Unlike in grade school, where the purpose of teaching is to pass on knowledge, Mercer believes that the purpose of university instruction is not only to make students more knowledgeable. Instead, it is also part of the job of university instructors to model the kind of intellectual autonomy that defines a liberal education. Teaching at a university is aimed at helping students become researchers in their own right. It is aimed, not at advancing some particular set of beliefs but at helping students to study, interpret and appreciate the world in which they find themselves. It is the job of a university education to help students to learn to think for themselves.
This view of liberal learning is strongly connected to academic freedom. As Mercer tells us, the job of figuring out how things are, and of producing and appreciating interpretations of the cultures around us, “is much better served in an atmosphere of freedom than in one of constraint.”3 Academic freedom and freedom of expression increase the likelihood that we will get things right and help others to do the same. Both help to multiply the options we can discuss and test.
Universities, according to this view, have a special responsibility to help develop academic communities, communities that allow people to come together to inquire, interpret and appreciate. In part, this is because collaboration and shared critical discussion help us advance knowledge more efficiently than if we were working alone. In part, too, it is because most people engaged in academic work genuinely enjoy the free exchange of ideas with others. They genuinely enjoy participating together in the life of the mind.
If this is right, academic freedom and freedom of expression more broadly play an essential role in any university community:
“Academic freedom and freedom of expression do not just work to improve intellectual community but are necessary for it to exist in the first place. Researchers and interpreters care about getting things right, certainly. They want to believe truly and to value soundly. But they also deeply care about believing what one believes and valuing what one values for one’s own good reasons. The only good reasons for believing or valuing are the reasons of evidence, argument, and example. To believe or value because of social or other pressures is not consistent with the endeavour to think for oneself.”4
It is only by hearing about ideas of all kinds, by weighing evidence carefully and by promoting universities as places of dispassionate inquiry, that a liberal education becomes possible.
As attractive as this view of a liberal education might sound, it has to be admitted that it is not a view that has been universally accepted, either by the general public or within universities themselves. For many people, universities have been founded to produce and promote, not intellectual autonomy, but commercially useful knowledge. They are places that help us increase our knowledge of medicine, engineering and communications technologies. Their purpose is to teach us the facts of history and mathematics and science. They are meant to be knowledge factories.
On this view, while it is true that academic freedom protects researchers and helps them discover new truths and share this knowledge with the world, and while it protects teachers and helps them better instruct their students as they see fit, such activities need not themselves be connected to the practise or promotion of a liberal education.
Mercer defends a different conception of the university, one in which the idea of a liberal education is more fundamental. As he writes,
“The understanding I favour conceives of the university as a community in which individuals enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, full intellectual autonomy. They enjoy, or aspire to enjoy, intellectual autonomy for themselves, but they are also committed to ensuring that the other members of the community can enjoy it along with them. The purpose of academic freedom, then, is to promote and maintain a community in which people enjoy full intellectual autonomy.”5
According to Mercer, people enjoy full intellectual autonomy when they believe what they believe and value what they value for their own thoughtful, considered reasons. As Mercer puts it,
“We are less than fully autonomous intellectually when our reasons for believing and valuing are opaque to us or are merely the causes of our mental states. The reasons why we believe or value as we do are merely causes when they consist in the pressures of punishment or reward. Suppose, for instance, that we believe that species evolve by means of natural selection. If we believe that they do because we don’t wish to appear ignorant or stupid, or because we crave acceptance by our peers, or because we think that’s what it takes to get a good grade, then we believe they do in indifference to whether in fact they do; we don’t actually care to understand the origin of species; we care, rather, not to appear ignorant or stupid. To believe something in indifference to its truth is to lack intellectual autonomy.”6
In this account, academic freedom is important since it is academic freedom that protects both the scholar and the student from being forced to believe things for non-academic reasons. Academic freedom is what protects members of a university community from having to worry about the social or religious or political or monetary consequences of their research. It is what protects researchers from all pressures other than those of evidence and argument; and since it is evidence and argument that guide us most efficiently towards “the truth of belief and the soundness of values,”7 anyone who values intellectual autonomy for its own sake is more likely to end up believing and valuing correctly.
For Mercer, the production of knowledge turns out to be rooted in our intellectual autonomy, not vice versa. Universities are thus best understood as places in which academics—instructors, researchers, performers, librarians, museum curators and students alike—are free to investigate the most fascinating, energizing and promising ideas ever conceived, as well as the most offensive and repulsive. They are meant to be places in which we are free to investigate the world in which we live as best we can, without the worry of non-academic pressures being placed on us from either outside or inside the academy. Whether we practise the right religion, belong to the right political party, were born in the right country or come from the right family all turn out to be irrelevant to the intellectual lives we live in a university.
Of course, there is no reason to think we will agree with all of Mercer’s proposals—or with those of anyone else for that matter. For his part, Mercer is more than willing to put his beliefs about academic freedom to the test. For any of his beliefs, he welcomes his students (and his readers) to respond with their own reasoned replies and criticisms to his views. That, on Mercer’s view, is how we learn. We listen to each other’s ideas for a wide range of reasons. Sometimes, by doing so, we learn something new and, for that reason, we decide to change our minds. Sometimes hearing an alternative idea helps us clarify things that previously seemed opaque and that we now can state more clearly. Sometimes we learn that others see the world differently than we expected and this helps us understand why events have unfolded in otherwise unpredictable ways.
Among the various proposals Mercer advances, I find myself being swayed by the arguments he gives in favour of the idea that on-campus demonstrations and petitions “are not always just irrelevant to the care and feeding of discussion and to the mission of a university—sometimes they are poison to it.”8 His argument, in part, is that politics without discussion is ineffective because, in the absence of discussion, we are less likely to get our facts right. When this happens, our proposed policies will often fail to attain their (sometimes quite noble) goals. Without discussion, it is also difficult for people to accept as fair a decision or outcome they may dislike. It is in this context that academics have a special duty “to provide thoughtful evidence in favour of or against particular views.”9 In contrast, protests, demonstrations and petitions typically do little more than signal to the world one’s moral or political sentiments. At their worst, they can bully students, politicians and others into adopting policies that they have not yet fully thought through.
Mercer’s rehearsal of Socrates’ famous distinction between relativism and liberalism is also much worth reading.10 As Mercer reminds us, relativism about values turns out to be no friend of liberalism. What relativism actually implies “is that members of those cultures marked by tolerance are right to be tolerant of others and their ways, while members of those cultures marked by violent intolerance are equally right to be violently intolerant,” something that is surely an unpalatable conclusion for anyone who understands tolerance to be an objective value.11
For many people, Mercer’s defence of dispassionate inquiry and free discussion is not only attractive, it is also persuasive. Even so, we still need to evaluate the suggestion that knowledge is itself firmly rooted in intellectual autonomy. Put simply, is Mercer really right to think that increased intellectual autonomy is the surest path—or even an effective path—to increased knowledge?
Of course, in one sense, whether intellectual autonomy is the surest path to increased knowledge doesn’t matter. For anyone who aspires to be more than just a serf or a slave, Mercer is right that being able to think for oneself, being able to believe and value for one’s own good reasons, is just as important as believing truly and valuing soundly.
But at the same time, there is also a sense in which the source of human knowledge really does matter. Whether in medicine, engineering or the humanities, whether in theatre, politics or history, advances in knowledge really are rightly understood to be of benefit to all humankind. Advancing knowledge is thus, in itself, a genuinely noble goal.
Advances in knowledge, especially in scientific knowledge, are also widely understood to be something that is largely objective, something that governments and other paymasters can measure and quantify, at least to some relatively modest degree.
In contrast, increased intellectual autonomy sometimes seems to lead to nothing more than an increased diversity of ideas and values. Sometimes this diversity of ideas and values leads to new intellectual discoveries. But just as often, it seems that it is our diversity of viewpoints that leads to entrenched social differences. Reasonable people, after considering complex social or religious issues, often simply end up agreeing to disagree. Cultures often diverge. When they do, they often become more entrenched and the stakes of encountering entrenched disagreement become higher. Sometimes, we think, it is simply better that we all row in the same direction, whatever that direction might be. Who cares why we believe we should all drive on the same side of the road? Isn’t it enough that we do?
Unlike scientific knowledge, advances in intellectual autonomy are also widely understood to be much more difficult to quantify. While the alternative view of favouring objective knowledge focuses on measurable increases in output, Mercer’s view focuses on the scholar or student as agent. Philosophers from Aristotle to Kant have suggested that this will lead, in the long run, not only to increased knowledge but to better, more fulfilling lives.12 Democrats from Socrates to Locke have suggested that this goal will also lead to more stable, peaceful societies.13 But who among us is willing to wait for the long run? Quite reasonably, the taxpayer might ask, how are we to know whether we are getting our money’s worth?
Mercer’s reply is not to deny the many advantages brought about by institutions that focus more narrowly on the production and dissemination of objective knowledge. He acknowledges the benefits such institutions bring. But he also believes there is a need for some universities, or at least for some departments within universities, to focus more specifically on the goals of a liberal education. At least this is his officially stated position. Secretly, it is possible that he may think that all university education, including the most applied and most objective, will benefit from having professors who want to help their students learn to think for themselves. This happens in even the most technical and scientific of disciplines as well as in the humanities, although perhaps not as often or as systematically as Mercer might hope.
Even so, the ability to think for oneself is not something that can be forced on people. Nor can it be forced on members of the taxpaying public. It is something that can only be described, discovered and desired. At its root, it is something people need to want for themselves.
It is in this context that we can understand the importance of Mercer’s essay, “In Praise of Dangerous Universities.”14 For students and potential students, Mercer’s challenge is clear: Where would you rather study? At a safe university, a university that works to ensure that no unpleasant, uncomfortable thought or idea is ever made public or robustly defended? At a university where only clear, objective, agreed-upon knowledge is passed down from teacher to student? Or would you rather study at a dangerous university? At a university where people argue about all manner of things? At a university in which both students and faculty are free to explore an unlimited range of ideas, from the most familiar to the most outlandish? As Mercer also points out, if students and faculty continue to ignore this question, if they prefer to study and work at universities that encourage the existence of campus speech codes (in which subjective offence is the test for censorship), and the existence of bowdlerized course curricula (in which original, primary texts containing offensive language cannot be presented as objects of study), the universities they end up with will be those they deserve.15
For the general public, it is worth noting that the stakes in the debate about the importance of a liberal education are not trivial. At a time in which so many freedoms are being challenged around the globe, having a nation of citizens who value liberal learning is no small accomplishment. A nation that is unable to tolerate a few cartoons being posted on an office door is unlikely to survive the kinds of social and political stresses that are regularly placed on modern, multi-cultural democracies. Today’s students need to be prepared to become tomorrow’s journalists and judges. They need to be prepared to become tomorrow’s teachers and town planners, professors and politicians. Universities need to remember that they are educating adults, not children. Students who leave university without having been exposed to the full range of ideas motivating their fellow citizens—including those that are unpleasant or wrongheaded—will inevitably find themselves at a disadvantage. Learning to function in a world filled with opposing, often misguided and offensive ideas, is something from which we all can benefit.
Taxpayers also need to decide whether they want to continue to fund universities that build into their mission-statements the idea that some topics are simply not open for discussion. They need to decide whether sheltering students (and others) from offensive ideas is something that is in the long-term interests of their nation. Teaching students that some topics shouldn’t be discussed and that some viewpoints may not be expressed will inevitably weaken public debate on a wide range of important issues.
If we want our future politicians to be able to stand up to an American president who believes he can close off discussion simply by making up facts that suit his nation’s purposes,16 this is something young people need to learn how to do while studying political science. If we want our future journalists to understand the importance of being able to stand up to a Chinese ambassador who tries to intimidate them into not asking questions about some topics,17 this is something they need to see happen in practice at journalism school. If we want our future researchers to be able to push back against the idea that some research topics should never be investigated, this is something that is unlikely to be learned in an environment in which some words are prohibited from being studied and some ideas are forbidden from being expressed.
For those of us who are tempted to place limits on public discourse, we need to ask ourselves whether we really think our democracy and our institutions of higher learning are so fragile that they have to be protected from mere words. We need to ask ourselves whether university students really need to be protected from discovering that not everyone shares the same values, even if they share the same facts.
Mercer’s answer to these questions is clear. For Mercer, it is the purpose of a liberal education to encourage future leaders and citizens alike to be able to think for themselves, to be able to weigh evidence pro and con about even the most unwelcome and controversial of topics and to be open to hearing new ideas and new evidence about issues that concern us all. Mercer emphasizes this point as follows:
“There are at least two excellent reasons why people outside universities should want their society’s universities to be places of liberal study and, thus, places of wide and robust freedom of expression. The first is that the results of research can be trusted only when they come from a place at which any idea may be pursued and any criticism offered. Should people suspect that researchers are under pressure to come to certain conclusions and to avoid others, they cannot have confidence that the conclusions the researchers draw are likely to be sound. If professors and students may not question received narratives about the residential schools, for instance, or the motives people have for changing sex, then whatever they say on these topics will lack credibility.
“The second is that independence of mind is a prime value in a free, open, and democratic society. Universities of liberal study can help students to attain both intellectual and moral autonomy. In their role as citizens, those who have come through programs of liberal study will be better able to consider matters fully and fairly and less inclined to jump on bandwagons or to complain of being offended. The knowledge and skills a person can gain at a doctrinal university might suffice for careers, but not for independent judgement.”18
In short, for anyone who favours the flourishing of a free, open and democratic society, we abandon the goals of academic freedom and of a liberal education at our peril.
1 Mark Mercer, “In Defense of Liberal Learning and Intellectual Community,” C2C Journal, 14 December 2016, https://c2cjournal.ca/2016/12/the-values-that-universities-forgot/.
2 Mercer, “In Defense of Liberal Learning and Intellectual Community,” supra.
3 Mercer, “In Defense of Liberal Learning and Intellectual Community,” supra.
4 Mercer, “In Defense of Liberal Learning and Intellectual Community,” supra.
5 Mark Mercer, “Two Ways of Thinking about Academic Freedom,” Newsletter of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship, no. 69, January 2015, p. 1,
6 Mercer, “Two Ways of Thinking about Academic Freedom,” supra, p. 2.
7 Mercer, “Two Ways of Thinking about Academic Freedom,” supra, p. 2.
8 Mark Mercer, “Demonstrations, Protests, Petitions, Boycotts—and Universities,” The Journal (Saint Mary’s University), vol. 73, no. 7, 31 October 2007,
9 Mercer, “Demonstrations, Protests, Petitions, Boycotts—and Universities,” supra.
10 Plato, Theaetetus, 157e-171d.
11 Mark Mercer, “Humanities Professors aren’t Really Moral Relativists,” Ottawa Citizen, 13 August 2009, p. A15.
12 Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Reason, New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2000; Anthony Gottlieb, The Dream of Enlightenment, New York, London: W.W. Norton, 2016; Michael Losonsky, Enlightenment and Action from Descartes to Kant, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
13 Andrew David Irvine, “Origins of the Rule of Law,” in David F. Hardwick and Leslie Marsh (eds), Reclaiming Liberalism, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020, 179-217; Andrew David Irvine, “Socrates, Democracy, Dialectic,” in Anna Lazou (ed.), Socrates & Dialectic, Athens: Angelakis, 2020, 169-194.
14 Mark Mercer, “In Praise of Dangerous Universities,” University Affairs, 3 May 2010, https://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/in-praise-of-dangerous-universities/.
15 Mark Mercer, “George Jonas on Canada’s University Administrators,” The Journal (Saint Mary’s University), 8–14 December 2010,
16 David Smith, “Donald Trump Admits Making Up ‘Facts’ in Trade Meeting with Justin Trudeau,” The Guardian, 15 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/mar/15/donald-trump-admits-made-up-facts-justin-trudeau; Bess Levin, “Trump Openly Brags about Lying to Justin Trudeau’s Face”, Vanity Fair, 15 March 2018, https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2018/03/trump-openly-brags-about-lying-to-justin-trudeaus-face.
17 Reporters without Borders, “Chinese Diplomat Lu Shaye, the Bane of Canadian Media, Appointed Ambassador to France,” RSF: Reporters without Borders, 17 June 2019, https://rsf.org/en/news/chinese-diplomat-lu-shaye-bane-canadian-media-appointed-ambassador-france.
18 Mark Mercer, “A Response to Opponents of Free Expression on Campus”, The Civil Conversation, January 2020, https://www.civitascanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/TCC-Jan-2020.pdf.