All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 1962

Academic Freedom

Any time a great debate rages on any particular subject—such as academic freedom—and on each side of the controversy are arrayed intelligent men of good will, one conclusion can be reason­ably drawn: Some basic principle in the argument has been neg­lected.

Academic freedom has been de­bated as if it were primarily an ideological or a philosophical prob­lem whereas, in my view, it is an organizational problem. Whether a teacher be a communist, a social­ist, a Fabian, a New Dealer, or their direct opposite, is a matter of secondary concern, unrelated, strictly speaking, to academic freedom. If we were to shift the subject from academic freedom to the free market and then argue that it mattered whether or not one were a carpenter, a plumber, a farmer, or whatever, we would be on comparably untenable ground.

The confusions about academic freedom may be cleared if we first examine teaching in its simplest form and move from there to more complex forms.

The simplest teaching relation­ship would exist between parent and child. The parent is responsi­ble for the child, and consequently has authority over the child. The basic principle in all successful organization is that responsibility and authority be commensurate. Any deviation leads to trouble, whether in the simplest relation­ship between parent and child or in such complex relationships as are found in large corporate or­ganizations. The successful parent-child relationship will find the parent relinquishing authority as the child grows in stature and assumes the responsibilities for his own life. When responsibilities are fully assumed, no parental au­thority whatever should remain. The solution of the academic free­dom problem rests squarely on the responsibility-authority principle. The mother teaching her child, assuming no interference, has per­fect academic freedom. She will teach the child precisely what she wants to teach. Whether the mother is a communist, an anarch­ist, or of the libertarian persua­sion has no bearing on the ques­tion of academic freedom.

A Third Party Introduced

Now let us take the first step toward complexity, the mother em­ploying an aide, shall we say a tutor? The responsibility for the education of the child still rests with the mother. And if trouble is not to ensue, the authority must also remain with her. The tutor may or may not share the mother’s views about life, educa­tion, and social affairs. But re­gardless of their agreements or differences, the mother should still be in the driver’s seat. If she can delegate a portion of her responsi­bility-authority powers to the tutor, she also should be free to revoke such powers. The power to hire, logically, carries with it the power to fire. If one could only delegate and not revoke, could only hire and not fire, he would be in the absurd situation of having to live all of his lifetime with an ever-growing accumulation of mistakes. If this were the case, who would dare risk employing anyone?

In this mother-child-tutor ar­rangement, let us assume that the mother is a devotee of socialism and that the teacher turns out, much to the mother’s surprise and disgust, to be of the libertarian persuasion, one who believes in no coercion at all to direct the crea­tive activities of citizens within a society. What then? Is the social­ist mother obligated to retain the libertarian tutor on the grounds of academic freedom? Whose aca­demic freedom? The mother’s or the tutor’s? Is the mother, who once had academic freedom, now to be deprived of it because of hiring the tutor? Is the tutor’s freedom to teach what he pleases to supersede the mother’s freedom to have her child taught what she wishes? This anomalous arrange­ment would have the mother re­sponsible for the education of the child and for paying the tutor, and leave the tutor with authority as to what the child should be taught—the responsibility-author­ity principle totally violated. Nothing but friction would result, certainly no educational progress.

Libertarian views generally are founded on the belief that each person has an inalienable right to his own life; that he has the re­sponsibility to protect and to sus­tain his life; and with this goes the corresponding authority to make free choices as related to every creative action—no exceptions! Our tutor, holding such libertarian views, must concede that the socialist mother’s aca­demic freedom supersedes his own as it relates to what should be taught the child. That is her busi­ness and not his. For him to argue that he can teach her child what he pleases, that she does not have the authority and the right to dis­charge him lest his academic free­dom be violated, is to place the argument on the wrong ground. Such a claim would be for tenure, not for academic freedom.

The tutor’s academic freedom is in no way violated if the socialist mother chooses to discharge him. He is free to teach his libertarian views to his own children or to the children of parents who may subscribe to the services he is pre­pared to render. Academic free­dom would be violated if one were coerced into teaching what he be­lieved to be wrong—if the liber­tarian tutor were compelled to teach socialism, or if the socialist mother were compelled to have her child taught libertarian ideas.

Further Complexity

Numbers can be added to the parent-tutor relationship without altering the responsibility-author­ity lines. A good example was the Ferris Institute of 1917, long be­fore it became a government school. Mr. Ferris owned the school. There was no Board of Trustees. It was a venture as priv­ate as his own home. He employed teachers in accord with his judg­ment of their competence. He ad­mitted students in accord with his judgment of their worthiness. If he thought he had erred in the selection of a teacher, the teacher was discharged. And many stu­dents were sent home because they would not meet the standard of hard work he required.

Mr. Ferris had the sole respon­sibility for the success of Ferris Institute; and, correctly, he as­sumed the authority for its con­duct. Academic freedom was in no way offended. Teachers who shared his educational principles were free to submit their creden­tials and, if employed, to put these principles into practice. Parents who liked the hard-work stand­ards of Ferris Institute were free to seek admission for their chil­dren.

Most private educational or­ganizations are more complex than was the Ferris Institute of that time. Some are corporations organized for profit, in which case the ultimate responsibility and authority rest with the stock­holders in proportion to their ownership. As a rule, the responsi­bility and authority are delegated to a Board of Trustees; and the Board, in turn, delegates the responsibility and authority to a chief executive officer, usually a president. The president organizes the institution and delegates the responsibility and authority vested in him to numerous sub administrators and teachers. The stock­holders, having the final responsi­bility for the institution, quite properly have the authority to change Board membership if they find themselves in disagreement with Board policy. The Board, in turn, having been given the re­sponsibility by the stockholders, has the authority to discharge the chief executive officer if they be­lieve he is not properly executing its policy. The chief executive officer, vested with responsibility by the Board, has the authority to change his aides if he believes they are not carrying out his ideas. Discretion in exercising authority, regardless of where vested, is assumed.

Complexity in no way alters the responsibility-authority prin­ciple, but only increases the diffi­culty of tracing the responsibility and authority lines.

Rules for Cooperation

All organization, educational or otherwise, is an attempt at co­operation. Cooperation is not pos­sible unless responsibility and au­thority go hand-in-hand. Ex­ample: You want a new house, but rather than build your own you select a contractor to whom you delegate the responsibility to build it in conformity with speci­fied plans. Now, suppose that you delegate no authority to the con­tractor and that other members of your family, and any of the car­penters, can alter the plans at will. The house, if one ever ma­terialized, in all probability would be a mess.

Suppose, on the other hand, that you have given the contractor an authority commensurate with his responsibility, and he then tells the carpenters that the con­struction is to be precisely accord­ing to your plan. But the car­penters protest: “This is doing violence to our freedom. You are not letting us practice our views on carpentry.” The absurdity of this is apparent. Yet, it is the same as the teacher’s protest, “You are doing violence to my academic freedom,” when he is asked to respect the authority of the one who has the responsibility for the teaching organization. Ac­tually, he is insisting that he be permitted to do as he pleases in matters for which someone else has the responsibility. He claims freedom to do as he pleases while he denies it to the responsible per­son who pays him.

Often, it is not academic free­dom that is at issue; it is simply a claim for tenure. American parents, not wanting communism and socialism taught to their chil­dren, seek the discharge of teach­ers of such faiths. But the teach­ers cry “academic freedom” and the parents, Board members, and school officials are loath to violate this sacrosanct part of their own philosophy. So, the academic free­dom argument is a good tenure argument. It is precisely the same as the “right to a job” argument advanced so persuasively by pro­fessionals of the labor movement. It “works,” and therefore is used.

Enter, the Government

This argument succeeds because the responsibility-authority prin­ciple has been neglected. The neg­lect comes, in the case of public or, more accurately, government education, because it is most diffi­cult to know who is responsible or what performance is expected. Where does responsibility ulti­mately rest? With the taxpayers in proportion to their assessments for schools? Generally, this would be denied. With the parents who have children in government schools? These, seemingly, have no more responsibility than those with children in private schools, or than those who have no chil­dren at all.

With the voters? Probably this is as close as one can come to identifying ultimate responsibil­ity in the case of government edu­cation. If the responsibility rests here, then that is where the final authority rests. It rests here in theory and to some extent in prac­tice. The voters—whether or not they are interested in education and whether or not they have children—elect Boards of Educa­tion. These in turn select super­intendents, who then employ depu­ties and teachers. Without too much difficulty, one can trace the chain of responsibility in govern­ment education from the voters who ultimately hold it and who delegate it by plebiscite to Boards of Education, to superintendents, to teachers. But the teachers, in theory, have no authority to teach what they please. They are, in theory, subject to the authority of the superintendents, the super­intendents subject to the Boards, and the Board members to the voters. Simple enough thus f ar!¹

The question is: What do the voters want taught? What teach­ing has this heterogeneous mass the authority to impose? Every conceivable point of view and edu­cational technique known to man may be found among these millions of voters. They range from one ideological extreme to the other. Among them are commu­nists, socialists of every grada­tion, anarchists, libertarian ideal­ists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and what have you!

What do these people want? They want all things. And the best one can expect from such a plebis­cite is the common denominator opinion of the millions, an opinion subject to all sorts of emotional influences, expressed in a voice that is rarely clear.

Vague Generalizations

Our purpose here is not to argue the merits of government education, but to demonstrate how confusion about academic freedom arises when the source of respon­sibility is unable to speak clearly or exercise the authority it pos­sesses “on paper” or in theory.

There need be no such confu­sion in the case of private educa­tion. Pronounced variation results from private endeavor. Each en­terprise presents its own brand of education, and citizens take their choice.

Government endeavor, on the other hand, results in vague gen­eralizations. All the wants and aspirations, the interests and con­flicts, are combined into an educa­tional potpourri, the ingredients of the compromise being propor­tional to the popularity of various ideas at the moment.

Adding to the confusion is the fact that all parties in the chain of government responsibility-au­thority—Boards of Education, su­perintendents, deputies, and teach­ers—are themselves voters mak­ing decisions not only as a part of the plebiscite but acting on their own authority, not neces­sarily the authority issuing from the plebiscite.

The government educational effort is a political apparatus and behaves accordingly. The indiffer­ence of voters invites special in­terests to assume command.2 For instance, if teachers adequately organize, they can easily control the government school system and supplant the voters as the respon­sibility-authority fountainhead. The deputies, the superintendent, the Board of Education, and the voters become the teachers’ aides, so to speak, helping primarily as taxpayers.

When affairs take such a turn—a common occurrence—it is easy to see how teachers resent any voter interference with the freedom to teach whatever they please. The teachers have appro­priated the responsibility for the government schools. And with the responsibility goes the authority to manage the schools, even the authority to make the voters—dis­placed bosses—pay the bills. In this topsy-turvy arrangement, it is natural that teachers should feel free to teach what they please. Interference, from whatever source, is indeed a violation of their politically purchased “aca­demic freedom.”

Remove the Coercion

As long as education is politi­cally organized, the squabble over academic freedom will continue. The voters, by reason of their natural indifference and diverse opinions, are unlikely to regain the responsibility and authority which the theory of government education presumes to be theirs. If they would end the squabble, they will have to get education out of the political arena.

This confusion about academic freedom, which originates in gov­ernment education, carries over into private schools in many in­stances.

Academic freedom is no more sacred than is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom to produce what one pleases, and freedom to trade with whomever one pleases. There is no freedom peculiar to the classroom, diplomas, degrees, or mortarboards. Let anyone teach what he pleases, but let him do it on his own responsibility. Let him not cry “academic freedom” as he robs someone else of freedom.

When government is in the edu­cational driver’s seat, academic freedom will always be argued as if a political and ideological prob­lem, which really it is not. When the market is free for the produc­tion and exchange of all goods and all services the issue of freedom—academic, economic, or whatever—is never in question.





There is no word that admits of more various significations and has made more varied impressions on the human mind, than that of liberty. Some have taken it as a means of deposing a person on whom they had conferred a tyrannical authority; others for the power of choosing a superior whom they are obliged to obey; others for the right of bearing arms, and of being thereby en­abled to use violence; others, in fine, for the privilege of being governed by a native of their own country, or by their own laws.

Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws

Foot Notes

1 It is not quite as simple as this sug­gests. Federal and State and City De­partments of Education are assuming increasing powers and tend further to confuse the responsibility-authority lines.

2 Voter indifference today in America is no sociological accident. It is an in­evitable consequence of overextended government. Voter indifference today in America is no sociological accident. It is an in­evitable consequence of overextended government.

  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”