How academia traded freedom for justice

Academics have frittered away their right to free thought. It's time they took it back.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams

Topics Free Speech

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.

The new sociologists of education, who came to prominence in the 1970s with the publication of such books as Michael F D Young’s Knowledge and Control, posited that curricular knowledge merely reflected the ideology of the dominant social elite. The educational failure of many working-class children was thus blamed on the fact that their knowledge and experiences were not recognised as legitimate in the existing education system. Feminists of the time, likewise, challenged the very possibility of truth or objectivity in knowledge; key women’s studies textbooks argue that patriarchal assumptions are ‘built into what has been taken to be “knowledge”‘. Postmodernism has gone even further, suggesting that all knowledge is merely constructed through discourse.

The argument that curricular knowledge is, to a degree, arbitrary and socially constructed, is well made. However, knowledge takes its objectivity precisely from the social conditions of its production – with new ideas born out of a particular time and place used to test and temper existing truth claims. However, this latter point has been lost today, with many academics assuming that knowledge is reducible to personal experience. Instead of testing the truth of existing knowledge, it’s argued that the notion of truth is itself an outdated concept. Instead, from this perspective, there are only multiple, equally valid truths which are all dependent on the status of the speaker’s social group. As Graham Good puts it in Humanism Betrayed, ‘objectivity and disinterest are dismissed as pretences concealing the motives of power’.

This intellectual relativism is most dominant in arts subjects, where the value of a text is no longer considered on its own terms but rather as a representation of the gender, class and race of the author. To counteract dominant ideologies and promote a concept of academic justice, new authors are included in the curriculum, not because of an objective evaluation of the merits of their work, but on the basis of the particular group they represent.

What academics today fail to realise is that by privileging authorial identity over objective quality, they are in fact failing to challenge the status quo. Rather than allowing old ideas and new ones to do battle, academics today insist that discourse is comprised of a range of commingling perspectives which hold relative value. The vital process of colliding old truth claims with new knowledge has been jettisoned in favour of politically loaded goals of inclusion and justice. As a result, when knowledge is viewed as just an ideological expression of power relations, writing particular content out of the curriculum on the grounds that it may offend someone is seen as of little intellectual consequence.

In essence, this is a process by which the academy is self-censoring for the sake of ‘academic justice’ – the very notion Korn had the temerity to voice. However, the elevation of academic justice as some kind of victory for open discourse is ultimately meaningless: in relativising opposing views, the objective basis for challenging some ideas as racist or sexist, for example, is also done away with.

The content of the curriculum, in the arts and humanities just as much as in the sciences, needs to represent the best that has been thought and said. This requires judgements to be made that separate the value of a work, or the validity of a theory, from the identity of its author. There can be no academic freedom in universities until scholars reclaim a collective intellectual aspiration towards the goals of attaining truth and objectivity in knowledge.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech


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