The Value of Academic Freedom

Will Rawn
Montana State University-Northern

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

If a weakening of respect for academic freedom were to entail nothing more than the dismissal of some professor who uses a vivid sexual metaphor to make a point; or the denial of tenure to an occasional feminist (or critic of feminism); or the decision of a frustrated assistant vice-president to substitute her judgment for that of the notoriously slow moving and unrealistic faculty senate--if this were all that were threatened when academic freedom is weakened--we faculty would still have some interesting stories to tell one another, but our stories could never rise to tragic grandeur. After all, faculty are not tragic figures in our culture, but the reverse. From Thom Jones' bullying tutors to Waugh's degenerate schoolmasters to the nice, but ineffectual profs of Jon Hassler's novels, the professional educator is a comic figure. At best we may aspire to the role of secondary villain.

If, when we think of academic freedom, we attend only to the narratives of violated faculty, the tale is weak in general interest. This is especially true of faculty employed by four-year state colleges, community colleges and vocational schools, institutions which produce relatively little research. So Professor Y gets crushed? Given her 12-hour-per-semester load in Biology 101, she wasn't likely to come up with an AIDS vaccine in any case.

Rather than assume a value for academic freedom, I would like to examine what kind of special freedoms may be appropriate to different educational goals, particularly in those state-supported institutions where research has generally not been a primary goal. To measure what is at stake, for students and society, when we speak of academic freedom, I ask you to consider several glimpses of higher education.

Here is the first, from Montana Governor Marc Racicot in the Spring 1996 edition of The Montana Professor:

Current educational and labor market data tell us that we need to focus on educating Montanans from early childhood through grade 12 and beyond. New national programs such as school-to-work opportunities as well as new directions in our state such as the university restructuring that has taken place, demand that we consider our educational institutions as part of a K-16 and beyond system. Students need to make well-informed decisions regarding their career plans in light of their knowledge and skills and the course offerings at each of the respective higher education units. Any perceived stigma of two-year education needs to be replaced with a keen understanding about the jobs of the next century and the kind as well as level of knowledge and skills that will be required. One critical ingredient of economic development, that is workforce preparation, needs to be intertwined with business and industry demands. Our future workforce, our students, should be encouraged to begin thinking about their career interests, their personal talents, knowledge, skills and abilities in the early grades. The educational system needs to prepare a curriculum that provides a solid basic foundation of knowledge, along with career preparation and the learning of skills that will transfer from one job to another. (5)

Let me say at the outset that I do not assume this passage encapsulates the whole of the Governor's vision of the purpose of higher education. With that qualification in mind, I do, however, think it will be interesting to examine the implications of this statement, as if nothing more were to be said, for the passage does in few words capture many of the key ideas about a more efficient educational system current in much recent discussion of educational reform.

If an examination of "labor market data" can predict future job slots, and if students are to "begin thinking about their career interests, their personal talents, knowledge, skills and abilities in the early grades, "then it ought to be possible to tailor a student's education much more exactly to the spot in the economic structure for which that student is aiming than is currently the practice. How much preparation in chemistry does a person need in order to perform the work of a dental hygienist, for example? Less, certainly than a future nurse. And how much knowledge does either require of philosophy, political science, or the experience that comes from participation in classroom debate, in student government, or from attending conferences ? None. This last set of experiences may safely be reserved for those in training to become executives or political leaders.

If we focus simply on the goal of workforce preparation, there are implications too for the academic freedom of faculty. The goal is not inevitably hostile to every kind of academic freedom. Indeed, immediately following the passage to which I have referred, the Governor reminds us of the guarantee of academic freedom. But I believe a strenuous commitment to workforce training has implications for the kind of freedom--in the classroom, in scholarship, and in governance--that may be meaningful for faculty.

Just as this goal implies a sorting of the students, it also implies a greater specificity for the activity of faculty. If, for example, a faculty member's task is simply to transmit to students the skills and information needed for employment as a diesel mechanic, there should be little occasion for academic freedom to become a classroom issue. The case would be very different for a speech teacher to whose care the future managerial elite has been entrusted.

Concerning scholarly activity, if the general goal is economic development, it must be acknowledged that a great deal of scholarly activity has no obvious economic consequence; it might make sense to say to painters, story writers, literary critics, "Do what you like, since what you like to do doesn't matter." On the other hand, it would also make sense that research which might have a practical application be managed to maximize economic advantage, perhaps by the same educational/corporate task forces that are to keep education on track in preparing students with the right workforce skills.

Finally, some changes would seem to be in order in the realm of governance. The goal of preparing workers for defined entry points into the economy might be more efficiently realized by a centralized management system than by the traditional, time-consuming and noisy system of faculty governance. In the case of curriculum planning, for example, instead of the traditional system in which all faculty have some say, why not create advisory committees, composed of representatives from industry, faculty, and perhaps students, which would communicate directly with a state level planning board?

Now, for a jolting change of pace, consider this, from Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy:

[The Thinking Classes] live in a world of abstractions and images, a simulated world that consists of computerized models of reality--"hyperreality," as it has been called--as distinguished from the palpable immediate, physical reality inhabited by ordinary men and women. Their belief in the "social construction of reality"--the central dogma of postmodernist thought--reflects the experience of living in an artificial environment from which everything that resists human control (unavoidably, everything familiar and reassuring as well) has been rigorously excluded. (20)
This is one of many passages in which Lasch attacks the "thinking classes" or "intellectual elite," terms not limited to the professoriate, though certainly inclusive of it in Lasch's view. I don't propose to debate the accuracy of this group portrait (though it is a common view, analogous to that which has informed the fiction of higher education for centuries), but I would like to examine the relationship between this conception and, first a commitment to preparation for work as the first purpose of higher education, and secondly John Henry Newman's ideal.

At first sight, Lasch's detached "thinking classes" appear completely incongruous as the professoriate of the university as workforce preparation site. On examination, I believe the contrary is true, that not only can such a professoriate thrive in such a system, but that a system in which students are urged from "the early grades" to begin sorting themselves by interest and aptitude can be expected to produce a teaching class who live in a world distant from "the reality inhabited by ordinary men and women."

While I doubt this this is exactly what the Governor has in mind, if a heightened emphasis on job preparation were married to some other ideas for more economical delivery embodied in, for example, a rider to my current contract which calls for replacement of multi-section classes by large lecture/lab classes, and proclamations of the "Virtual University" by the Montana commissioner of higher education, then a certain kind of academic freedom would be facilitated. Much that is required for most kinds of work may be communicated by lecture, by video demonstration, by information packages from a host of Internet sites. Meanwhile, a great deal of the discussion in our classrooms and offices, which so often prevents academic thought from going where it will, might abate. Perhaps we may look to a future when we spend much less of our time in direct contact with students, when, as masters of the virtual university, our task will be to facilitate the transmission of information to students we need never meet, a time when at last the faculty shall be free. Free, that is, of the students.

The final perspective I would like to consider is from John Henry Newman's lectures on The Idea of the University, first delivered in 1852:

When, then we speak of the communication of Knowledge as being Education, we thereby really imply that Knowledge is a state or condition of mind; and since cultivation of mind is surely worth seeking for its own sake, we are thus brought once more to the conclusion, which the word "Liberal" and the word "Philosophy" have already suggested, that there is a Knowledge which is desirable, though nothing come of it, as being itself a treasure, and a sufficient remuneration of years of labour. (582)

Elsewhere in these lectures, Newman draws a sharp distinction between " Education," the process by which mind itself is formed, and "Training," the transmission of particular skills or facts. It is also important to notice that the definition he stipulates for "Liberal" education is not identical to the definition implicit in today's college catalogs. In Newman's sense, a course in philosophy is not necessarily liberal, nor is one in agriculture necessarily illiberal; the distinction depends upon whether the general development of intellect or the acquisition of specific knowledge is emphasized.

One way to explore the kind of experiences students must have, and the kind of activities educators must engage in to realize Newman's ideal, is to look at the outcome, the graduate he envisions:

If he engages in controversy of any kind, his disciplined intellect preserves him from the blundering discourtesy of better, though less educated minds; who like blunt weapons, tear and hack instead of cutting clean, who mistake the point in argument, waste their strength on trifles, misconceive their adversary, and leave the field more involved than they find it...he throws himself into the minds of his opponents, he accounts for their mistakes. He knows the weakness of human reason as well as its strength, its province and its limits. (611)
This is a mind prepared to think--logically, dispassionately and with discrimination--and to engage in discussion--courteously and effectively; and, it is evident from numerous other passages in his lectures, Newman envisioned a graduate capable of applying those abilities to the most difficult topics--morality, religion, political philosophy. What educational experiences are necessary to approach this ideal? The contrasts to the requirements for workforce preparation are striking.

If preparation for work is the preeminent end, tracking makes sense--this student to a certificate program, this one to a community college, and this one, perhaps only to a single course in the Virtual University. If, however, the goal is capacity for the thought and discourse Newman describes, it is important that students with the most diverse ideas, vocational interests, and aptitudes meet; the ability to "throw himself into the minds of his opponents," to recognize "the weakness of human reason as well as its strength" cannot be developed in a student who meets only like minds. Much of the learning necessary to at least some kinds of work can efficiently be delivered by lecture, supervised laboratory experience or demonstration. Obviously, this will not do as an approach to Newman's ideal. Not only are small classes, in which students debate one another and their instructor, required, but experience in government and clubs, and attendance at controversial lectures become central to the purpose of education.

Academic freedom is intrinsic to, and at the same time takes a special and strenuous form from, this ideal. Academic freedom becomes, not freedom from (satirized by Lasch), but freedom--or responsibility--to. In his lectures, Newman sometimes speaks of the university as a "community" apart from the larger society, one in which ideas may be explored with a freedom defined by the needs of education. It might even be said that the development of the mind's freedom becomes both method and primary subject of education. But it is a special kind of freedom, one academically defined. It is not, for example a freedom to exercise one of those "blunt" (minds which) "tear and hack." In such a community the limits of academic freedom cannot be established by an easy formula. Questions of what forms of argument may be consistent with academic freedom, of the special claims of expertise, of which issues remain open to debate in what terms, will be recurrent.

The goal more than permits; it virtually requires faculty to introduce students to unfamiliar ideas on controversial issues, and to engage students in debate, remembering, of course, that argument from the disputant's own authority is rarely appropriate. Scholarship must be evaluated, not only in terms of communication among a professional elite, but according to its service to a general academic community. And faculty participation in governance becomes important, in part as a model of what is expected of students. We may take a rough measure of how far our institutions may be from endorsing Newman's vision by trying to recall when last someone was denied tenure--for failure ever to introduce an idea distressing to student complacency; for never having published anything worthy of denunciation; for not once having said anything in a campus assembly disturbing to the repose of a dean.

Few will deny the importance of career training in higher education, and most of us grant some value to liberal education. The question is one of emphasis. If students attending state colleges, community colleges and institutes were asked, I have no doubt most would say the Newman plan sounds interesting..."But I have to get a job." From the time of the founding of the land grant colleges, the answer of state governing boards has generally been to emphasize career preparation, leavened with a little liberal education for students who attend vocational institutes, a little more for those in community colleges, and a little more--but still a small measure--for baccalaureate students. Preparation for work is certainly an appropriate goal for public education, but I question whether it is a sufficient goal. I certainly agree with the Governor of Montana that any stigma attached to two-year education is wrong, but it seems to me that stigma can only be replaced if students of two-year institutions receive, in addition to job training, something of that academically structured education in freedom which Newman advocates. Indeed, it seems to me that public institutions ought to be more concerned with liberal education than are the private institutions which have generally embraced that goal, for the kind of education described by Newman supports an important public good, the development of able citizens.

If the greatest public need were for a more highly trained workforce, then it would make sense for most of us to forget about Newman, reserving "Education" for students who can afford to attend elite liberal arts colleges. If, on the other hand, the real crisis is--not a shortage of productive workers, but the uncertain availability of jobs for highly trained people; not a decline in the nation's wealth, but an increasingly inequitable distribution of wealth; and, if the greatest public danger is that an increasing number of Americans have little faith in government itself--then an emphasis on preparation for the workforce is not a sufficient objective for any public institution of education.

That insufficiency is especially marked when students are encouraged to begin sorting themselves by interest and aptitude "in the early grades," as the Governor of Montana recommends; when, in the name of efficiency, some, such as the student of the Virtual University, are to receive even less of Newman's "Education" than others. By itself, such training cannot even achieve its primary goal. The author of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that more and more American companies are discovering the advantages of exporting highly skilled work; for example, computer companies find it profitable to employ programmers in India, at about one/third the rate paid programmers in the United States (Emspak B2). Then something more than workforce training is needed if that training itself is to yield any public benefit.

Who can be expected to address these problems? Not, I think, the CEO of some major corporation who has just received a healthy bonus because he figured out how to reduce the executive force by 20 per cent. An elite force of public managers? Members of my generation who recall the conduct of the Vietnam War by the "Best and the Brightest" have had doubts about that possibility for some time; today, it seems to me that almost no American who reads a newspaper could be expected to assent.

The people best situated to deal with these public issues are those who attend state vocational institutes, community colleges and four-year colleges, because they are the people who experience the problems most immediately. It is in the public interest that these people experience the "community" of academic freedom. Newman says of the education he describes that its chief practical virtue is "...that of training good members of society.... It is the education which gives a man a clear conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them" (604). This must be the chief goal of public higher education.

Works Cited

Emspak, Frank. "Where Have all the Jobs Gone?" Chronicle of Higher Education 30 (5 April 1996): B2.

Lasch, Christopher. The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1995.

Newman, John Henry. "The Idea of the University." English Prose of the Victorian Era. Ed. Charles F. Harrold and William D. Templeman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1938. 575-612.

Racicot, Marc. "Concerning House Bill 229." The Montana Professor 6.2 (Spring 1996): 3-6.

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