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Academic freedom for its own sake

I beg to differ when it comes to academic freedom at universities.

By MARK MERCER | OCT 19 2011

Academic freedom, Peter MacKinnon tells us, is for something; it doesn’t exist for its own sake (“What do we mean when we talk about academic freedom?”). What it is for is “to advance scholarly enquiry in the interests of seeking truth.”

That is why, according to Professor MacKinnon (who is a professor of law and president of the University of Saskatchewan), their possessing academic freedom shouldn’t protect professors from sanctions when what they write or say doesn’t serve to advance scholarly enquiry. And faculty unions should recognize this, and get out of the way when administrators are trying to deal with irresponsible professors. Best that they stand aside so that administrators can protect academic values and secure the independence and self-governance of their institutions.

Professor MacKinnon is wrong, though, to think academic freedom isn’t to be valued for its own sake. It is, just as freedom of expression is. Academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus generally exist as a constitutive value of the enquirer’s way of life. That we be free to say what we wish and how we wish is something we should value and protect as an end in itself, crucial to our identity as academics.

The best statement of the view that academic freedom isn’t merely necessary or useful to scholarly enquiry but a constitutive value of the scholar’s life and ideals is the essay “Why Academic Freedom?”, by Ronald Dworkin. The key idea he expresses is that scholars, scientists, and intellectuals prize not simply knowledge but also understanding and learning, and thus hold themselves responsible in their enquiries to no pressures save those of evidence and argument. They come together in universities to enjoy the community of other scholars, scientists and intellectuals. Out of respect for their colleagues as fellow scholars, scientists and intellectuals, they grant all members of their community wide freedom of expression, wide freedom, that is, from institutional, social and political pressures to think or value one way rather than another.

It’s not having true beliefs that is important to the scholar, but having true beliefs for the right reasons. But what count as the right reasons is itself a matter of enquiry, not something to be closed off by an authority. It is certainly not to be closed off by a dean or a vice-president academic; it’s not even to be closed off by the discipline or the community of scholars.

The justification for public support of universities – universities, that is, that understand themselves as communities of scholars – will certainly include that such universities produce knowledge and artefacts useful to the societies that house them. But that is not the only justification. It’s also important that universities, as communities of scholars, are marked by a culture of independence and thus constitute a line of defence against cultures of conformity. Sometimes, though maybe rarely, the young people who study at universities gain a taste for independence against conformity and bring that taste to the wider world after they graduate.

Now, a standard criticism of wide academic freedom and wide freedom of expression on campus is that scholarship and teaching need protection from the charlatans and mountebanks among us, and protection means policing. Unless administrators have some weapons to use against the holocaust deniers, 9/11 truthers, and climate-change skeptics, research will be corrupted and students will graduate both ignorant and cynical.

That this criticism of academic freedom is almost universal among university administrators (and enjoys healthy support among professors) might speak to a serious problem in universities today. The obvious response is that evidence and argument are all the protection research and teaching need. Perhaps, since Professor MacKinnon and other administrators are asking to be able to use pressure to straighten out irresponsible professors, we who champion wide freedom of expression on campus haven’t been fulfilling our responsibilities to engage critically with our peers. Is the problem that academics today are too nice, more concerned to respect their colleagues’ views than to respect them as academics?

Of course, even if the problems that such administrators blame on wide academic freedom are, in reality, minor or non-existent, we professors still should work tirelessly to reinvigorate the culture of criticism on our campuses. Not because, or not only because, doing so would improve research and teaching. But mainly because it is our pleasure as academics committed to the life of the mind to start an intellectual dust-up whenever we can.

Mark Mercer teaches in the department of philosophy at Saint Mary’s University.

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  1. Craig Monk / October 19, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    When discussing academic freedom, my most strident colleagues have provided a useful, related concept: “… and responsibility.” It takes quite something to surprise me; however, I remember the blow I felt when I realized that by this phrase they meant their responsibility to wield academic freedom to afflict the comfortable in all settings. I assumed that they meant that we must use our tremendous freedom in a responsible manner. For me, this does not mean restricting my comments to matters related to American literature, my area of training, or to matters of teaching and university administration, the areas in which I have most experience. As an educated citizen with the opportunity to have my voice heard, I feel a responsibility to speak out on a range of topics. I have enjoyed and continue to expect my institution’s support when saying, as an Albertan, that I believe our whole province should more equitably share the benefits of our natural resources, for example. This kind of comment should not be restricted to economists. But I do think that we must recognize that not everyone with a doctorate in x is speaking with authority on y, and – most importantly – we must be more careful about avoiding collateral damage when commenting upon, and afflicting, those interests that might appear “comfortable” but are not so.

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