Academic Freedom Is a Means to an End: Truth

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In May of this year, the newly elected United Conservative Party government of the province of Alberta directed all accredited colleges and universities in the province to adopt policies protecting freedom of expression on campus. Although each school must compose its own statement upholding free-speech rights within the specific context and institutional culture, the famous Chicago principles will serve as a guide and benchmark. Although just one institution has, to my knowledge, completed the task, the post-secondary sector in my home province should be uniformly committed—in policy, at least—to free expression by the new year.

Some people dislike this mandate, claiming that it implicitly promotes noxious moral and political views, but many of my friends and colleagues are relieved. My university has not (yet) had a dispute with one of its own, in the vein of a Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, or Anthony Esolen. Nor have we, to my knowledge, banned a controversial (i.e., conservative) speaker. But, in the absence of a commitment to free expression, we might.

Concordia University in Montreal recently did just that. Its Liberal Arts College, a Great Books institution, disinvited Harvey Mansfield—arguably the most distinguished living political theorist on the Right, and an expert on several of the great thinkers who wrote the Great Books the college teaches. Mansfield’s crime was espousing views that, up until the day before yesterday, were mostly considered common sense.

Exhibit A of Mansfield’s thoughtcrime is his book Manliness, which defends the traditional virtues that have long characterized noble men (not merely noblemen). His detractors clearly didn’t bother reading the book or examining the issues he addresses therein—not even cursorily. Had they done so, they might have learned that “manliness” is the literal translation of the ancient Greek word andreia, which is typically translated as “courage”.

 

Now, I’m not defending Mansfield—not that he needs me to.  I’m simply pointing out that he wrote a book about courage. How toxically masculine of him!

The situation at Concordia was particularly disappointing to me, as I happened to have graduated from the Liberal Arts College and taught there for two years early in my career. More to the point, my studies at the College convinced me that a first-generation university student who came from hard-working, immigrant, peasant stock could pursue the life of the mind—and maybe, if fortunate, make a living of it. That an ostensibly intellectual place could behave so un-intellectually is shameful. With a freedom of expression policy, my university might avoid a similar embarrassment, at least for the foreseeable future.

Freedom of expression and academic freedom—typically understood as professors’ freedom to research and teach as they see fit and without fear of reprisal should their work be controversial—may be goods, but they have their own intrinsic risks. Ensuring a free space for ideas leaves open the real possibility that utter nonsense could be perpetuated as much as, or even more than, good ideas and rational discourse. Such freedom cuts two ways, protecting reason and truth from punishment while permitting and even enabling the propagation of folly. If a conservative may speak freely, so too may a Stalinist; if a scientist, so too a pseudo-scientist; if a Catholic, so too a New Age spiritualist. Likewise, academic freedom means that wrongheaded ideas can be presented in classes as much as true ones can. Worse, they can be presented as if they are true. I fear this happens presently more often than does the contrary.

As tragic as it is, exposure to nonsense may be the natural price to pay for protecting the right to also teach the truth. Assuming that humans (lousy a lot as we may be) are not wholly, universally, and incorrigibly idiotic, we can hope that nonsense will be rejected when confronted by truth. But it may not be so. Even if truth wins out in the end, temporary or limited exposure to falsehood is dangerous—spiritually, morally, and intellectually. We must be cautious about policies that enable such exposure, even if we support them.

The inherent risk notwithstanding, freedom of expression and academic freedom seem to me to be generally beneficial for contemporary democracies like ours. They’re much more likely to promote the pursuit of truth than does the more common approach, whereby those who dissent with the politically correct status quo are silenced. The former leaves it to imperfect humans to decide what is and is not true; the latter shuts truth out. Humans may choose wrongly but, in so choosing, they may also be corrected and learn. That’s what’s supposed to happen in school, after all.

These benefits notwithstanding, this whole debate misses the key point about genuine freedom of study and learning. Academic freedom, as it’s typically understood, is a false freedom. Genuine academic freedom is not the license to teach or research whatever one fancies, but rather the freedom to pursue truth unencumbered by political and economic influence. Drawing from the entire Western tradition, Josef Pieper calls this pursuit “leisure,” which stems from the Ancient Greek skole, the root of our word “school.” Leisure is the free space reserved for study, for the pursuit of truth.

It is not, however, leisurely. It may require effort; it certainly requires dedication. But it only happens if the mind is freed from utilitarian ends to investigate real things and, if successful, discover the truth of the matter.

Schools are either such spaces or they are not schools at all, but indoctrination factories or self-indulgent daycares. There is no academy without academic freedom rightly understood and protected. As Pieper puts it, the “academic” means that,

in the midst of society there is expressly reserved an area of truth, a sheltered space for the autonomous study of reality, where it is possible, without restrictions, to examine, investigate, discuss, and express what is true about any thing—a space, then, explicitly protected against all potential special interests and invading influences, where hidden agendas have no place, be they collective or private, political, economic, or ideological.

The freedom to speak and teach falsely, ideologically, or with a view to advancing some economic or political goal is not academic freedom—yet that is precisely the freedom professors typically defend and celebrate. So long as teaching and scholarship are directed (explicitly or not) by political and economic interests, universities will not be free.

I’m glad to have freedom of expression protected where it has been under threat, but I will only believe universities and colleges are realizing their mission when they recommit themselves to the pursuit of truth and reject categorically all ideologies—Left, Right, and everything in between. Only then will our campuses be free.

Photo: Concordia University, Montreal (meunierd/Shutterstock.com)

Edvard Lorkovic

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Edvard Lorkovic is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Interim Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. A generalist by choice, if not by formation, his teaching and research focus on moral and political issues in ancient and late modern philosophy.

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