Phi Beta Cons

Should We End Academic Freedom?

A recent op-ed in the Harvard Crimson has been making the rounds lately. In it, the student author argues against … wait for it! … academic freedom.

This isn’t a joke. The author writes that “the liberal obsession with ‘academic freedom’ seems a bit misplaced.” Instead of protecting scholars’ freedom to follow the evidence wherever it may lead, the author thinks “students, faculty, and workers” have an obligation to uphold “academic justice.” After all, she asks, “If our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of ‘academic freedom’?”

Not surprisingly, this embarrassing article has drawn the trenchant criticism of Jonah Goldberg and Peter Wood, who have written wonderful responses to this embarrassing piece. And Goldberg is certainly right that we ought to appreciate the author’s recognition of what academic freedom entails, even if she thinks it is a bad thing.

What is, in fact, most troubling about this piece is that it is coming from a student. Many of the stories we hear about violations of academic freedom have to do with faculty or administrators taking actions against students and student groups who espouse unorthodox views, through the use of “speech codes” and other pernicious instruments. That is why those of us who fight for academic freedom speak so often of students’ “freedom to learn”—free of intimidation and indoctrination. But it seems at least some students don’t want anyone fighting for their freedom to learn in an open and diverse intellectual environment. They want higher education to be subordinate to their social and political ends—to act as what the seminal Kalven Committee Report called “a second-rate political force or influence.” For these students, inquiry and dialogue are irrelevant distractions: they can simply begin and end with conclusions.

It is hard not to wonder how far the author would be willing to take her position. Should students writing papers with views she deems offensive receive poor grades? Should student groups be denied funding if their views are incongruent with the majority’s values? After all, if academic justice is the reigning objective, then what principle would stand in the way of any of this?

If we want college students to value academic freedom, then an environment of free and open inquiry must permeate college campuses. Speech codes must be abolished, and faculties and administrations must welcome all views. Freedom and the pursuit of truth die quickly when the habits of open discourse fall to disuse, and the grim conclusion will be indoctrination, not education.


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