Free thought was once seen as an essential component of intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of truth. ‘Genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom’, declared John Stuart Mill in On Liberty. Some 80 years previously, Immanuel Kant had also argued that independent thought required the ‘freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters’. In one of the first arguments for academic freedom, Kant continued, ‘as a scholar, [man] has full freedom, indeed the obligation, to communicate to his public all his carefully examined and constructive thoughts’.
In recent years, however, academic freedom has been called into question. The drive of universities to be ‘inclusive’ by promoting equality and diversity has been pitched against the freedom of individual academics to teach and research topics that could be deemed by some to be racist, sexist or homophobic. Sandra Y L Korn, a student from Harvard University, provoked debate last month by arguing in an article for Harvard’s student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson, that ‘academic justice’ should trump freedom of expression. She suggested that, ‘when an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue’. Korn was quite rightly challenged by many of her fellow students in the comments below her piece, but the national media backlash against Korn seemed somewhat bizarre: some commentators even went so far as to declare that her article reflected the end of academic freedom.
Holding one young student to account for the collapse of academic freedom is inaccurate and cowardly. Worse, it stifles proper reflection on the nature of higher education today. Korn’s biggest crime is naivety; she has imbibed a view that dominates higher education, but remains implicit rather than publicly stated. The institutional pursuit of equality and diversity policies, the tendency of academics to self-censor when their views or research compromise these pursuits, and a dominant political consensus in higher education have all combined to promote ‘academic justice’ over academic freedom. Academics have allowed this to happen; indeed, many have welcomed it. Instead of blaming one student for exposing the status quo, it’s now incumbent on scholars to examine why academic freedom, so arduous in the winning, has so easily been given away.
The significance of academic freedom, as both Kant and Mill were acutely aware, lies in the fact that it enables scholars to challenge the dominant orthodoxies of the day. In order for society’s collective understanding of the world to progress, knowledge needs to be contestable and open to being superseded when intellectual advances are made. This does not mean that there is no truth or objectivity in knowledge. On the contrary, Kant repeatedly argues that truth is integral to the exercise of scholarship: ‘truth (the essential and first condition of learning in general) is the main thing’. The role of philosophers, Kant claims, is to critique existing knowledge ‘in order to test its truth’. Therefore, for understanding to advance, academics need the freedom to test existing truth claims, disprove fallacies, and propose new truth claims, knowing that these too may be tested and superseded. In sum, discovering truth is the goal of advancing knowledge, and academic freedom is essential to this process.
However, since at least the 1960s, various trends in academia – particularly within the humanities and social sciences – have come together to challenge the assumption that truth claims can even be made in relation to knowledge. Theorists associated with the Frankfurt School, such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, emphasised the temporality and context-dependence of truth in knowledge. Meanwhile, the New Left’s pet academic project, cultural studies, argued that knowledge was inescapably relative and determined by cultural conditions.