Education in America: 9. Academic Freedom for What?

Dr. Roche is Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education. He has taught history and philosophy in college and maintains a special interest in American edu­cation.

Professor Sidney’s book has quite justly criticized the great quanti­ties of "sloppy rhetoric" poured forth on the subject of academic freedom. The over discussion of such a topic usually stems from chronic under definition, reflecting the painfully human trait of hav­ing the most to say on a subject when we are least sure what ought to be said.

Higher education is plagued by this lack of a workable definition for academic freedom, and this is rooted in a singular fact: Never has there been a formal statement of the relationship between the academic community and the rest of society. Is the academic com­munity merely to teach our young? Or do we ask that it also discover new truths? Perhaps we also wish our teachers to serve as philoso­phers of the realm. In short, no lasting answer seems to have been given the questions: Should so­ciety decide what is taught in the grove academé? Should the acad­emy decide society’s course? Or, does some workable third alterna­tive exist?

Perhaps the best means of get­ting at the relationship between the academy and society is to clarify what we have in mind when we discuss the education of the indi­vidual student. The student is the vital link between academy and society, since it is the student in whom both have a common stake. In the last analysis, we want one thing for the student: freedom —i.e., the achievement of that ca­pacity for internal self-determina­tion allowing him to become a whole man, his own man. How is this freedom to be achieved? It must be achieved through knowl­edge, through the development of a capacity for self-discipline, through an understanding of the obligations and privileges involved in life.

Freedom for the student surely cannot be attained without free­dom for the teacher. Freedom to think, to challenge the common view on occasion, would therefore seem an absolute requirement if education is to achieve the full development of the individual stu­dent. Does this freedom to develop and state one’s own views have no limitation? Many of those who discuss academic freedom insist that any restraint is unwarranted, since it interferes with a mysteri­ous and ill-defined "universal dia­logue." Others would insist that, while the freedom of research must be unlimited, society has a right to censor what its young people are taught. In effect, the teacher would be told, "Think what you like, but teach only what the majority approves."

Both of the above positions tend to be mere caricatures. Few actu­ally advocate a literal freedom to teach any idea, however socially unacceptable it might be. An equally small number actually ad­vocates a literal enforcement of censorship over the classroom teacher. The desirable norm lies somewhere between the two. Sure­ly anyone qualified to teach the young should ideally already pos­sess the inner freedom, the self-discipline, the necessary internal check of the truly civilized man, to maintain the standards of his ideas and values on such a high plane that parents should have no grounds for complaint. By the same token, parents should have sufficient confidence in the stand­ards of teachers to allow them a free hand.

The trouble lies in the fact that many teachers no longer seem to operate within the framework of values constituting civilized be­havior. Such teachers seem to have adopted the totally relative standards so damaging to modern society. Parents are not to be blamed for recognizing that teach­ers who themselves lack standards of value are ill-prepared to impart the proper values to the young. This may explain why some parents desire to censor the classroom offerings of the teacher.

Such a desire may be under­standable, but it is unacceptable if freedom for student and teacher is our goal. Merely substituting one set of wrong ideas for another set, trading license for repression, will not produce the desired effect.

If the teacher is to lead the student on the high road to inter­nal freedom, to his development as a unique person, he must be free himself; free to pursue his specu­lations, free to express the results of his findings. Such a teacher is more than an employee hired to teach the young. He becomes a seeker after truth, dedicated to explaining that truth to those who will follow. Academic freedom thus becomes an expression of sufficient confidence in the teacher to allow that process to operate.


Still, the search for truth car­ries with it the assumption that truth does exist. The alleged "ob­jective" approach of many pres­ent-day educators contains no such assumption. All ideas are to be presented to the student with­out that evil of evils, the "value judgment." Such relativism finally denies all values, thus destroying the framework of civilized value within which meaningful individu­al choice must be made. Christ, Socrates, and the other great teachers of history had at least two things in common: They dis­tinguished between right and wrong; and they did not hesitate to announce that distinction to all who would listen. In short, they recognized a framework of values.

There is also another historical lesson to be learned on the neces­sity of values. Those societies de­nying the validity of a value framework have invariably proven to be societies on the decline. The Sophists who finally destroyed the Greeks serve as a graphic exam­ple.

Unfortunately, truth will not necessarily rise to a dominant position in a totally "objective" teaching situation. Teachers who fail to believe strongly enough in the existence of truth as a premise for their teaching often serve as the ideal foils of those who would "stack the deck" against the free choice of the individual. Witness the twentieth century history of Russia or Germany, where totali­tarian control came as the after­math of periods of so-called "free inquiry."

Ultimately, the teacher must be free to do his own thinking and the student must be free to choose what ideas he will accept or reject. But the whole process of orderly thought becomes impossible unless some framework exists for the process of thinking. A completely relativistic stance is doomed to endless internal contradiction. If, as a relativist, a man insists that one opinion is as good as another, what defense has he against a totally contradictory view? If all views are equally valid, one man’s denial is as sound as another’s affirmation. Such thinking can only "agree to disagree" in an endless (and pointless) discussion foredoomed never to reach a con­clusion.

In a situation where "academic freedom" is so abused, it is small wonder that society finally balks at the prospect of the deforming edu­cational process which results. Most men sense that freedom in­volves far more than the license to do as one pleases. Meaningful freedom has always implied re­sponsibility, and responsibility de­mands self-control. Self-control presupposes guidelines within which the individual attempts to live in accord with accepted and acceptable standards. The denial of those standards and of the necessity for self-control in the name of "academic freedom" is as much a denial of true freedom for the individual as is an attempt to censor student and teacher in the classroom. Either way, genuine academic freedom suffers.

Much of the "sloppy rhetoric" on academic freedom to which Sidney Hook referred originates within the ranks of the "intel­lectual" community—authors, edi­tors, critics, and scholars, many of whom tend to be enamored of their own company. This love af­fair is sufficiently ingrown that all too often these mutually congratu­latory purveyors of "modern" thought have come to regard any criticism of their position as an assault upon "academic freedom." The strength of this delusion is verified by the spectacle of the many professors who seem to view themselves as part of an embattled nonconformist minority despite the fact that in many cases all the members of their respective departments share the same ideological position.

Outside Threats to Academic Freedom

The pressures on academic free­dom originating outside the acad­emy are sometimes exaggerated. Most men of good will are ex­tremely reticent to lend their sup­port to any thoroughgoing censor­ship over ideas on the campus. The danger to academic freedom is perhaps less likely to result from public concern over what is being taught on campus than from increased control of the purse strings by governmental and quasi-governmental agencies. This very real threat to academic free­dom, especially in research, is rooted in the use of tax monies in the manipulation of higher edu­cation. This important matter will be further discussed a bit later in the context of public versus pri­vate financing of education. Let it suffice here to mention the seri­ous threat of government control in higher education both directly, through subsidy of education with tax money, and indirectly, through corporate agencies holding govern­ment contracts.

Threats from Within

Though quick to complain of external threats to their academic freedom, professors seldom look to themselves, to the academic com­munity itself, as the source of the trouble. As a case in point, consider the decline in standards which often has accompanied the mass production techniques of modern higher education:

To want to extend the boundaries of knowledge, or to conserve the wis­dom of ancestors, some faith in the importance of learning, and in a Good that is more than private gain, is re­quired. That lacking, the teacher be­comes a hired hand, paid to do a chore… The automobile-worker on the as­sembly line enjoys no special freedom; he has no duties which require a spe­cial freedom. And if the teacher will­ingly assists in the reduction of for­mal education to a mere degree-mill intended to keep young people very mildly occupied, as if they were in an inordinately expensive kindergar­ten, then he surely will lose his aca­demic freedom….

Just what sort of academic freedom do these professor-employees expect? And just what sort do they deserve? What sacred trust are they guarding? Just how much do they themselves care about Truth? Some of them have on their shelves no books but a few free copies of textbooks; some of them talk, when they meet together, only of salaries and faculty scandals; some of them say that this state of affairs is a positive good, and look forward with relish to the demise of private foundations which, with intellectual snobbery, still cling to standards.¹

Academic freedom is further endangered from within by the growing tendency to substitute slogans for thought. Examples of such slogans abound. Appeals for increased emphasis upon proper training of individuals and higher standards within education are often denounced by teacher and administrator alike as "undemo­cratic." Secure in tenure, many professors seem more irritated than stimulated by a student with an inquiring mind or a colleague who holds differing views. Nicho­las Berdyaev might have been addressing himself to the Ameri­can scene when he remarked: "With sorrow we must recognize the fact that freedom is dear only to those men who think creatively. It is not very necessary to those who do not value thinking."²

With due allowance to the many creative thinkers and teachers throughout American education, the truth of Russell Kirk’s severe indictment remains:

Though they may go through the motions of "research," they care pre­cious little about the duty to extend the boundaries of knowledge, and not very much about the duty to conserve the knowledge of our civilization. The humiliating pressure which many ad­ministrators endeavor to exert upon teachers to publish—to publish just anything, anywhere, for the sake of the record—or to draw up enormous committee-reports about trivialities suggests that both administrators and teachers are ignorant of the true nature of academic freedom and aca­demic dignity. All the administrator wants is some tangible evidence of busy-work to present to his trustees or to the state legislature; all the teacher wants is some sham-proof of his liveliness of mind that may bring him a two-hundred-dollar increase in salary. How much freedom do such men have? And how much do they deserve?3

Political Activism

In addition to those who misin­terpret academic freedom as a "freedom to do nothing," higher education is also faced with po­litical activists who use their po­sitions as a sanctuary from which politically motivated attacks can be launched against the rest of society. "Sanctuary" is a well-advised term. Such political activ­ists never question the justice of their attacks, yet are the first to raise the cry of "academic free­dom" over the inevitable reaction to their activity.

Learned Hand once remarked, "You cannot wear a sword beneath a scholar’s gown." He was quite right. No one can simultaneously be advocate and scholar. Refusal to face this fact makes the politi­cal activist on the campus a pri­mary offender against the aca­demic freedom he constantly evokes.

Much of the student unrest on campus is directly traceable to faculty agitation, in which a priv­ileged academic position is used to subvert the entire process. Such professors are often so busy in such causes that they neglect the very teaching and research which is the reason for the academic community’s existence. Unless the teacher fulfills his duties to the system and convinces society he is discharging those duties, he can expect to lose the privileged base he has been granted. Academic freedom is not some irrevocable grant. If it is lost, we all suffer, because the process of creative thinking suffers as does the devel­opment of truly free, inner-di­rected students. But any right is doomed unless its inevitably ac­companying responsibilities are discharged.

While the professor has every right to take part in politics on his own, the current tendency to use the academy as an arsenal and staging ground for political com­bat is both unwarranted and dan­gerous. Considering the enormous overextension of government in our society, we may expect that when the academy is willing to lend itself to indoctrination and activism rather than education, the end result will be political regula­tion of that indoctrination. The state will prove to be a poor guard­ian of academic freedom.

The need is great for the aca­demic community to put its own house in order. The image and the fact of an intellectual community devoted to pursuing the truth must be renewed. Meanwhile, the number of genuine teachers and scholars quietly pursuing their proper function is the cement which still holds the system to­gether, despite all the destructive forces at work upon it.

This community of scholars needs protection on two fronts: from those outside the academy who would destroy freedom through excessive regulation, and from those inside the academy who would destroy the system through license. Unless faculties can regu­late themselves from within, they may rest assured they will be regulated from without.

The central question remains then, "Academic Freedom for What?" The answer is two-fold: the pursuit of truth; and the si­multaneous responsibility for de­veloping individual students so self-disciplined, so internally free as the result of their knowledge of civilized standards and human responsibilities, that the core of values constituting civilization will be consistently reflected in their behavior. That is the road to salvation for not only the aca­demic community, but for every­one in society. In a word, academic freedom is the freedom to perform the task peculiar to proper educa­tion. When the academic com­munity takes other roles unto itself, it does so at the dual risk of failing in its own function while tempting other elements in society to usurp and corrupt the educational function.

The next article of this series will discuss "Revolt on the Campus."



¹ Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom, pp. 163, 177.

2 Nicholas Berdyaev, The Realm of Spirit and The Realm of Caesar, p. 110.

3 Russell Kirk, Academic Freedom, p. 162.