The Academy and Therapy: Academic Freedom in the Modern University

James R Cadello
Central Washington University

Note: This paper was presented at the Second Annual Conference on Intellectual Freedom, Montana State University-Northern, April 1996.

The idea of academic freedom can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages, when guilds in Paris, Bologna, and Salerno referred to themselves as universities and demanded liberties from both church and state. Since the Enlightenment, the freedom to seek and profess fitting information and perspective without qualification or constraint from school, government, church, or other spheres of influence has been a focusing lens through which visions of liberal academies of higher learning have been clarified and an unfailing standard according to which the characters of educational institutions have been measured.

In the early nineteenth-century German university, and coincident with the increasing emphasis on political and intellectual freedom that had characterized the Enlightenment, academic freedom began to take the form we recognize today. This modern notion of academic freedom encompassed the freedom of both teachers and students: the content of professors' lecture and scholarly materials was free from supervision or censorship by superiors; the character of study and learning undertaken by students was given great breadth, restricted only by their abilities to pass regular examinations. Lehrfreiheit ("freedom of teaching") and Lernfreiheit ("freedom of learning") went hand-in-hand, establishing a reciprocal and symmetrical relationship with each other. The American Association of University Professors has championed the cause of academic freedom in this country, continuing the Enlightenment tradition of understanding academic freedom in terms of both professors' freedom to teach and students' freedom to learn (1).

However, this principle of academic freedom has in recent years come under assault, sometimes directly, and other times in not-so-conspicuous ways. For example, universities--sensitive to the ways in which students have been disadvantaged and traditions have been marginalized by curricula, pedagogy, and institutional structures--are rethinking what it means to provide an adequate, well-rounded education. In the process of this reexamination, the concept of academic freedom, central to our understanding of the modem university, has come under serious, though indirect, attack.

This assault stems from an ever-increasing tendency of modern universities to include as part of their mission, the function of social, psychological, and moral therapist. In general, this tendency is evidenced in therapeutic strategies adopted by universities to insure that individuals' (primarily, but not exclusively, students') rights are not abridged, that their potential is not stifled, and that their integrity is respected. This therapeutic tendency manifests itself within the university in the ever-increasing importance of any number of diverse issues ranging from the development of classes on topics such as "self image" and "personal growth" to the now-often-heard demand that students should be shielded against that which might offend or frustrate their sensibilities.

The proliferation within the university of this kind of thinking indicates a significant shift in how the academy comprehends its character and its function. Increasingly, many universities understand themselves as caretakers of students creating a dual responsibility: first, to develop in students positive and self-supporting attitudes that are believed to be foundational to human flourishing; second, to protect students from what might hurt, offend, upset or destabilize them. In a variety of ways--ranging from the monitoring of course content and mandating a recognition of marginalized contributions to prescribing what can and cannot be said in what contexts--universities more and more seek to insure the full development of students' potential and to guarantee that students' rights, sensibilities, and dignity are not abridged.

To accomplish these goals, members of the university community are increasingly concerned with "personal growth," "self development," and "character formation," labeling "offensive" and "oppressive" that which hinders the realization of these objectives. Along these latter lines, some universities are developing policies that prohibit language and actions that might, as one University Vice President recently put it, "demean, defile, degrade, or violate the human dignity of others" (2). We are told that this sort of "discrimination" has no place in higher education, and that we "must work to eliminate these oppressive behaviors and provide opportunities for all individuals to develop their full potential." We are encouraged and sometimes even required to criticize and eradicate those "attitudes and behaviors [that] negatively impact the personal, intellectual and social development of individuals."

Yet, I contend, the supposedly "brutal effects" consequent of such behavior are, at least some of the time, exactly what the university should strive to accomplish. On occasion, only by upsetting students' expectations, making them uncomfortable, and outraging their sensibilities can the university do its job. A significant portion of education is a process of positive disillusion. If, along the way, feelings are hurt--so be it; but such hurt feelings alone do not indicate an unfair form of discrimination: they need not indicate that one's dignity is being disrespected.

None of this is to deny that unfortunate and ghastly forms of discrimination exist. Nevertheless, merely because individuals feel as if they have been victims of discrimination does not itself indicate that discrimination has taken place--especially in the university--where the principle of academic freedom is in place to guarantee the free exchange of ideas in an arena marked by unhindered critical scrutiny. It is a mistake to emphasize the subjective responses of individuals to an action or statement when attempting to decide whether or not discrimination has taken place. Instead, such so-called "brutal effects"--including being offended and outraged, or feeling demeaned and having one's sensibilities insulted--often result from encountering hard, critical questions that are essential to the mission of the university. Feelings of hurt, discomfort and inferiority are and will be, from time to time, the fully anticipated upshot of critical investigation free of outside influence and constraint. In short, one should expect such "negative" subjective responses from students in an environment of academic freedom.

This is not to say the university exists primarily to demean and degrade; rather, the university, with its built-in biases in favor of critical review and free investigation, will inevitably produce such subjective responses in many of those who participate.

The university is not in the business of making sure that feelings are not hurt, nor should safeguards be placed in the university to insure that subjective sensibilities, attitudes, beliefs, commitments, values, and general sense of well being are not upset. Every teacher, certainly every university professor, knows that difficult questions and disciplined research often produce in students a subjective sense that they have been violated, a subjective sense that their potential is being stifled, and, therefore, a subjective sense that "attitudes and behaviors" of professors "negatively impact [students'] personal, intellectual, and social development." However, such a subjective standard, when used by students, is inappropriate in this context.

The faulty logic operates thus:

  1. My values have been challenged, beliefs questioned, world views criticized, or my ideas have been labeled as incorrect.
  2. Because my ideas have been criticized, I feel uncomfortable, inferior, stupid, not as good as the next person.
  3. So, I have been the object of discrimination.
  4. Discrimination is unacceptable.
  5. Therefore, because the kind of activity causing me this discomfort is discriminatory, it is unacceptable.

But such an argument fails to acknowledge that the university does discriminate: against ignorance and stupidity, intellectual darkness and the uncritical acceptance of idiocies and half-truths. The investigations undertaken within the university do discriminate against naive assumptions, against preferences and positions which cannot stand up to critical scrutiny, against unreflective dogmatism, uncritical skepticism, simple-minded relativism, and against a host of other ill-informed, poorly conceived, and sometimes down-right silly ideas that might circulate in the academy. Discrimination of this kind does not prohibit the expression of any ideas or viewpoints, but it also does not let any ideas or viewpoints pass by unchallenged, undeveloped, or unquestioned. Such discrimination is not merely undertaken every day in the university, but it must be actively and diligently pursued if the university is to adhere to its mission and fulfill its task.

Again, the university is not in the business of making sure that feelings are not hurt, that subjective sensibilities are not disturbed. Such an attitude smacks of self-help manuals and late-night television infomercials aimed at those who desire affirmation, support, and personality maintenance free of critical review. Those holding the therapeutic attitude attend too closely to the weaknesses and too-easily-bruised feelings of those who are psychologically unwilling and/or intellectually unable to undertake the rigorous, challenging, sometimes terribly excruciating and painful exercises that are part and parcel of the university.

To avoid misunderstanding, let me make this much plain. The therapeutic attitude, as I am characterizing it, stems from administrators, policy makers, and others who want to influence the shape and content of the university learning environment, taking the subjective sensibilities of students and other members of the academic community too seriously, and as a result attempting to reconfigure the mission and meaning of the university so that it incorporates and reflects these sensibilities. Some members of the university take too seriously this faulty logic, a logic that places subjective sensibilities above academic freedom in the hierarchy of university values. But in doing so, the university is in danger of losing its focus and its members' freedom to seek and profess fitting information, erudition, and perspective without qualification and constraint from outside influence.

Therefore, I contend that the modern university serves its role not as therapist for the thin-skinned, frail and ill-constituted who need prostheses, but as vigorous and diligent defender of critical questioning and unfailing inquiry. Experiment, exploration, and energetic attempting are the hallmarks of the modern university, and have been so since its inception. And for exactly these ends has academic freedom been so central a concept for the modern university. Yet, this principle is under assault by those who would rather see the university fulfill a different role. But it is against this role of therapist that we must stand if we are to defend the principle of academic freedom, and in doing so defend a concept at the very core of the modern university.

What I have said so far is in no way an attempt to limit the range of materials or perspectives that can be considered within the academy. In fact, it is because of my concern about the narrowing of scope that I have characterized matters as I have. Shumate stresses that "disrespectful or disorderly conduct that interferes with the rights and opportunities of others to pursue their academic studies cannot be tolerated." This must be so, this vice president continues, in order that the university may achieve the development of character that it wants to refine. The problem with all of this, from my perspective, is obvious. If such views are to become institutional policy, if they are to become increasingly pervasive in the academy, they would not infringe merely upon professors' freedom to teach; this therapeutic tendency also infringes upon and diminishes the students' freedom to learn. It does so by restricting, and in some cases seeking to eradicate, certain paths of critical appraisal and free inquiry by placing on such endeavors, in advance, qualifications that presuppose the values and assumptions associated with the therapeutic attitude.

Lerhfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, the freedom of teaching and the freedom of learning, are both undermined by the pervasive spread of the therapeutic attitude throughout the university. At stake is the freedom of students and faculty to learn, study, inquire, explore and attempt in a manner unconfined by the governing representations of reasonableness and the principal paradigms of prudence that happen to hold sway at a particular time and place. In this way, the therapeutic attitude does not merely constrain the freedom to teach, but significantly hinders the freedom to learn by attempting to intervene and put into place, to codify, a maternalism better suited to the nursery and to the preschool than to the university. Rather than allowing students great breadth in their freedom of learning, the interventionist-therapist prefers to demarcate that safe ground wherein students will not be hurt, wherein they will not be offended, wherein their putative dignity will be respected.

As is characteristic of those who adopt the therapeutic role, one who sanctions this position aims to treat, bring about an improvement, or provide alleviation of a distressing condition or state (3). But such a therapeutic position presupposes a knowledge of what is and is not in need of treatment, of what does and does not count as improvement, and makes such judgments on the basis of the experiences of students which might lead to distress.

Clearly, such a perspective is likely to perpetuate conformity and unthinking acceptance of whatever culturally dominant values, ideas, and sensibilities--no matter how inane, unsophisticated, or uncritical--students may have assimilated over the years. The therapeutic attitude will safeguard and sustain institutionally prescribed moral, intellectual, and psychological programs. In this interventionist therapy the process of the critical appraisal is shortcircuited, certainly hindered--if not altogether lost.

With the coming of the therapist, with the ever-expanding influence of the therapeutic attitude in universities, it may be time for another revolution in academic freedom, one in which those committed to the process of critical inquiry and investigation demand liberties and freedom from supervision--only this time it will not be from the state or the church, but from the intrusive interventions of therapists whose threats to academic freedom are manifest in their desire to make the university free from that which might be considered distressing, disturbing, and offensive. The biggest threat to academic freedom today and in the near future comes from those who want to make the university nice, safe, and secure.


  1. American Association of University Professors, "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (With 1970 Interpretive Comments)," and "Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students," Policy Documents and Reports (1990).

  2. Dr. Sarah Shumate, "Academic Environment Needs Care in order to Flourish," The Observer (16 November 1995). All succeeding quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from Dr. Shumate's article.

  3. Alfred M. Freedman, M.D., et al., Modern Synopsis of Psychiatry (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1972), 797.

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