Thursday, October 29, 2009

Academic Freedom

I was forwarded a link to University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer's address at Columbia University on academic freedom. You can find the text here.

Freedom is an interesting idea, and not without its perils. Freedom allows you to try out new ideas. Some new ideas are good, and some not. Natural selection sorts them out, and it can be unpleasant for the losers. But the danger of not exploring the survival-scape is also dangerous. Perhaps that explains the tub-of-war between left and right in the political realm, which might echo the similar conflicting emotions of hope and fear when we consider the unknown.

In the context of the academy, Pres. Zimmer expresses the desire to "move us beyond the views of academic freedom as a near theological principle on one hand, or as a peculiar entitlement for a privileged few on the other." Those would be the views from the inside and outside, respectively.

Zimmer references the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, calling it the "birth of the spirit of the modern research university as we know it today." Here it is in 1850:
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

This "German model" was formed with these objectives (quoting Zimmer):
[F]irst, that the goal of education was to teach students to think, not simply to master a craft; second, that research would play a role of central importance―and teaching students how to think would be accomplished through the integration of research and teaching; and third, that the university should be independent, and not be in direct service to the state.
The first of these resonates with the aim of liberal arts and its associated complex thinking outcomes. Zimmer quotes Friedrich Schleiermacher, who presented the idea of students enabled
to become aware of the principles of scholarship, so that they themselves gradually acquire the ability to investigate, invent, and to give account. This is the business of the university.
If I may paraphrase: perpetuating our ability to create new knowledge is the aim of the university. More idealistic is the description of the relationship between the university and the complex problems that bedevil the world outside the ivory gates:
[I]t is universities’ openness to ideas, to analytic debate, to rigor, and to questioning, and the provision of an umbrella, and in fact safe haven, for clashing thought and perspectives, that best illuminate societal, scientific, and humanistic issues.
Ideas and careers coincide in academia, and the ills of one infect the other. But success as a professional thinker inside the gates also depends on political skills and personal relationships. Fads sweep through the academy just like they do in pop culture. What's "hot" can force what's not into the deep shade of that umbrella. That, however, is the nature of freedom.

Zimmer notes that there are external forces that do not understand and have sought to curtail this freedom, which produces voices from the academy that discomfit the administration from time to time. He sketches a scenario:
Suppose there is a war that is very unpopular with the faculty of university X. A motion comes before the faculty governing body to the effect that the faculty of X declare themselves opposed to the war and call upon the government to end it immediately. What should happen? Is this faculty expressing their views? Or is it a chilling act that is inappropriate? What do considerations of academic freedom say?
This is the view from the President's office, and he notes that it becomes more complicated if said president is "politically active," which he advises against. The reason is far-sighted:
Universities are institutions with a long history and the prospects for a very long future. It is essential to preserve their value, their capacity for inquiry, discovery, and education over time, which will inevitably far outlast any particular political issue of the day, no matter how important it is.
It made me think of Spinoza, this speech. Bertrand Russell shows his affection for the philosopher in The History of Western Philosophy, with a poignant introduction (pg. 569):
Spinoza (1634-77) is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme. As a natural consequence, he was considered, during his lifetime and for a century after his death, a man of appalling wickedness. He was born a Jew, but the Jews excommunicated him. Christians abhorred him equally; although his whole philosophy is dominated by the idea of God, the orthodox accused him of atheism.
We owe our intellectual heritage to those who, with or without the shields of academic freedom, presented their ideas. Many did so despite fear of execration. The ideas themselves may or may not be ultimately successful, but nothing can replace the hard work of creating and disseminating them to find their fates. The fewer the barriers, the better.

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