On Minimal Constraints for Academic Freedom

April 2018

Much like the discussion of freedom of speech, the discussion of academic freedom is never about justifying complete unfettered freedom. Schooling in general implies constraints, for without constraints we wouldn’t know what counts as schooling. So, the discussion must be about how constrained students should be and about what principles we should use to determine which constraints are appropriate and which are inappropriate.

Issues concerning how much freedom students should have almost always come down to differences concerning the nature and purpose of the university. I would like, then, to begin by outlining my conception of what a university should be and end with some of the ramifications this has concerning academic freedom for both students and professors.

Firstly, I believe that the university should hold a unique place in our educational system. Primary, elementary, and secondary schools cover the basics of education, and community colleges serve to prepare their students for a variety of vocations. That leaves unanswered the question how to complete this project: how to create educated people. I believe that this is the unique position that a university should occupy: to fulfil the project of successful education by fostering the development of educatedpersons.

What I am talking about here is what is typically referred to as the “liberal model” of university education. Now, when I say liberal I mean a form of education that liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, which (as Martha Nussbaum reminds us) stems from the Roman and Stoic notions of education in general. A university that aims to educate and not simply train its students must then foster an environment that is conducive to the sort of teaching and learning that liberates the mind of its students rather than constraining it. A programme that does the latter is not an institution of education but rather an institution of indoctrination. The purpose of a university should not be to prepare its graduates for some specific vocation, nor should it be to endow them with basic knowledge and life skills, for there are already schools that assume this role. One cannot educate in order to liberate minds by focusing narrowly on honing one set of skills or transmitting one narrowly defined body of knowledge, as these other schools tend to. This means that universities need to offer a range of courses that span the whole gamut of human knowledge, and it follows that if progress is to be made—if the stores of knowledge that scholars, students, and society at large draw from is to be enlarged—then scholars and students must be permitted to examine any view that comes along. The only way to avoid turning a university into an institution of vocational training, or worse, an institution of indoctrination, is for professors, students, and administrators to dedicate themselves to examining ideas to determine which are true. So, if I am right about the university occupying the unique role of successfully completing the formal education process by liberating the minds of its students (in short, by educating them), then it seems to follow that certain minimal constraints should be placed on both faculty and students alike in accordance with this mission.

Michael Oakeshott reminds us that the university is “a place where [students have] the opportunity of education in conversation with [their] teachers, [their] fellows, and [themselves], and where [they are] not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession.” So, at the very least, university administrators, professors, and students need to foster an environment where professors are allowed the freedom to teach as their expertise dictates and for students to question views without fear of reprisal for questioning them. This entails wide latitude in allowing students to express their views, whatever they may be. However, there may be times where expressing their views no longer becomes conducive to teaching well; a time when the discussion strays too far away from the subject at hand or becomes too personal. Professors need to be empowered to shut down such discussions or re-center them. The freedom to be free of reprisal from administrators for holding certain views comes with it the responsibility to ensure that such expression does not prevent the rest of the class from participating in the discussion or from learning at all. For lack of a better way to put it, reason and truth become the censors of the university classroom.

What this means at the classroom level is that students should to be able to freely disagree with their professors without fear of reprisal from those professors or administrators but they must yield to the professor’s expertise when it comes to deciding the curriculum. Surely, there will be some cases where students do have an impact on the curriculum, but if reason and truth are our guides, then it follows that curriculum changes brought on by students will provide a better educational experience for all; they won’t be changes brought on by ideology or emotion. Emotions, discomfort, ideology should not dictate a professor’s choices in curriculum any more than they should dictate what students want their professors to cover or avoid.

Lately, though, students’ demands upon their professors have been motivated by these latter reasons. This is problematic, again not because students have no right to criticize the views of their professors or their curricula, but because change in service to these reasons runs counter to the mission of the university: to foster the development of educated persons. Education is a process that must necessarily involve growth of some kind, for we would not want to call someone educated had they not changed for the better as a result of it. Where physical growth may entail pain, intellectual growth may entail anguish. In order to grow in the ways one must to become educated, one must challenge preconceived notions, ideologies, and established schools of thought. Nothing can be held so sacred that it should be avoided in a setting such as a university. So, even though I say that constraints must be placed on the freedom of students and professors to express what they will in class and in writings, I think it follows from what I have said above that such constraints must be minimal if the university is to retain its utility and its unique place in our educational system.

To be sure, I am saying that by challenging the views of their professors, their fellow students, and themselves, students may come to see that there is more to what they challenge than they previously thought. They may find that more evidence is required before they can mount a proper defense of their own view. This is the sort of environment that fosters intellectual growth. And if we systematically preclude certain views from being able to be expressed, we run the risk of violating those principles that are central to the liberal model of university education. If certain views cannot be expressed in class or in scholarly works, it may follow that there are certain views that cannot or should not be researched, which implies that certain truths are to remain hidden and concealed from the light of reason. That is something that an institution of indoctrination takes as one of its central ends but not something any educational institution should abide.