“Free The Campuses”—Not So Far Fetched

September 2016

Is academic freedom a sort of eternal principle? As a principle, it would not bear exceptions except as its sister principle, free speech, bears them; for example, you could not knowingly spread a falsehood, and a fortiori, one that materially harmed people. On the opposing side is the notion that freedom is something less than a principle; it could be just a nice tradition in a nice society—not always practical or practicable. If that were true, it would be an ideal and a guideline. There is also the possibility that it is a European habit of mind that is best restricted to European-type thinkers.

We also wonder whether academic freedom is indispensable: do we “need” freedom or do we just hang onto it? If it’s necessary, is this need linked to something ulterior, some sort of “benefit”? And if there is a benefit, beneficial to what? To the research itself? Are there studies that don’t benefit from freedom? Are there populations that don’t benefit from it, either?

There certainly are, say some research ethics boards, both local and national; one of their standard criteria for funding is exactly that, that the research be of “benefit” to target subjects. In fact, “benefit” has to be demonstrated in the application, which means that there is always potential research that is not beneficial (and so, turned down). Where did this codicil come from? Historically, it was added to the original caveats, which were there to prevent scientific or medical research from conducting harmful experiments. (For a sample of humanities research harnessed to “social benefit,” see Rebecca B. Morton and Kenneth C. Williams, “Ethical Decision Making and Political Science Experiments,” Experimental Political Science and the Study of Causality, Cambridge, 2010. See in particular 12.1.2, “Expected Benefits from Experimental Research.”)

Back to definitions. What is academic freedom and who really needs it? For me, it is not founded in ethics or in national culture. It is not a “polite” way of discoursing in an advanced and pluralistic world. Nor is it a way to give everyone, every larynx, its 15 minutes of fame. Sure, all those things can be worthy fields to cross, but that is not what academic freedom is.

I suggest we call it a research tool, nothing more. As a research tool it’s part of a student’s basic equipment, much as communication skills are. Students are curious and free—or they are not students. If that is true, then freedom must be not only tolerated, but mandated. When you enter the campus as a researcher, you put your freedom face on.

I recall the good old days when I was an undergraduate. It was the 1970s and Speech Codes did not exist. On the other hand, there was always the odd teacher tinkering with “meaning.” One day, I enrolled in a Shakespeare section. I read the outline and felt uneasy. Then the professor came and said he was a “Freudian” and announced that Freud would be his key to Shakespeare.

He would, he said, ask us to do Freudian essays; for example, we might parse “To be or not to be” as a sign of Hamlet’s unsuccessful navigation of the Infant Oral Stage. I was appalled and said something moody in class, which made the professor testy. Next day, I marched into the office of the English chair and asked to be transferred to a different section.

The chair was sceptical—many students tried dodging “inconvenient” sections. He said he needed a valid reason for making the change. I replied that I was “not prepared to debase Shakespeare for a whole year, by pretending to validate a crudely reductive methodology just for marks.” His jaw fell into his coffee cup.

The next thing I knew, he had whisked the transfer forms out and shoved them under my nose: “Sign here, and you’re transferred!” And then he signed me into his own section, and later asked me to “argue any argument you can reasonably document, and especially one I don’t agree with.”

Ah for the good old days of the 1970s, when people had something to believe in but hedged.

What really is academic freedom? Perhaps it’s the action of informed reason combined with the capacity for curiosity. Or, on a more basic level, it’s a form of literacy. You are literate if you do not forget that you are free. It is not a “human right” or any other such disposable legality; it’s a primary tool, and it never gets dull or goes out of fashion.

Perhaps that is the eternal principle. Moreover, it has to be self-justifying. Knowledge is sui- generis and knowing things is its own valid end. You cannot waste your time becoming knowledgeable and you cannot harm the world merely by finding something out.

Now if we accept the above, what do we do with it? Tuck it into our sleeves? Wait until the coast is clear? Go into the woods to memorize it? You might as well do that, if you accept the campus as it is. It will never change of its own impetus.

Worth underlining: the campus will always be owned by those who want it most. If you want it to change, here are some points to put forward:

  • In the humanities, no more “you can’t write about that” from a professor, and no more “don’t refer to book X, Y, or Z.” Teach students that “current thinking” is a fashion statement in the arts and humanities;
  • Adopt a statement that the philosophical and artistic canon is an inheritance, not a relic;
  • Adopt, in policy, sanctions against anyone who bullies or manipulates a department, colleague, or student;
  • Adopt, in policy, the statement that there is only one identity on a campus, scholar;
  • Revamp tenure criteria to emphasize pluralism and scientific method as defined by cross-disciplinary bodies;
  • Create an independent department to conduct professional, rigorous, and impartial evaluation of teaching;
  • Ban all references, in institutional policies, to feelings;
  • Abolish the “research ethics boards.” Let each department vet the proposals the way they used to be vetted;
  • Ban all demands for a “social outcome” to research.

It would be prefaced with the definition of freedom: a research tool. It’s a small list, and one which teachers might publish and promote as an action plan. At the beginning, such professors will be scorned and howled at; yet they must persist, year after year, for that is what advocacy is. One day the opposition will feel the weight of an oncoming wave and flee for the hills. After all, it happened that way in the 1980s, so all you’re doing is staging a return.