On academic freedom

by The Editor

TheThingAboutSERIES: There is a growing tendency among some academics to serve at the state’s behest; that is, to abandon the preserve that academic freedom aims to safeguard and protect from political agendas in order to pursue and validate political projects, under the guise of objectivity. So it is worth considering the nature of academic freedom, why it is an important idea and what its purpose is in a society; most importantly, why it is so crucial to any genuine attempt to pursue the truth and what happens when it is ignored.

On academic freedom

By: Gareth van Onselen

7 February 2013

One should be cautious of any attempt to disaggregate a principle. Such an exercise often confuses more than elucidates.

People talk, for example, of ‘social justice’ but the general principle of ‘justice’ applies to every possible scenario ‘social justice’ might claim to address and the latter concept is, therefore, redundant.

Academic freedom, by contrast, makes sense as a stand-alone idea; for it governs a very particular boundary – between those ideas generated and interrogated by institutions of learning, universities in particular, and any outside force that might attempt to otherwise shape or determine them, specifically the state.

It safeguards an intellectual preserve, where ideas, whatever their nature or consequence, are explored and better understood for their own sake.

The pursuit of the truth demands such a safe haven. Without it, ideas inevitably become little more than weapons in the hands of those with power and goals other than enlightenment in mind.

In societies where this boundary is not properly understood or respected and a power-hungry state blurs or erodes away its purpose, academic freedom is ostensibly acknowledged as important but of little real worth, if not ignored completely. That is a sure path to ignorance, not understanding. The state assumes only certain ideas, those it deems righteous and expedient, are worthy of interrogation and only certain conclusions, those it deems necessary for its agenda to succeed, are worth arriving at. And so it directs what resources it has to their pursuit and demands their validation. It wants the benefit of academic freedom, the illusion such things were generated organically, but the assurance that no idea ever strays too far from the politically correct parameter it has established. It is disturbing how many willingly surrender their objectivity in favour of the political endorsement and praise that inevitably accompanies such behaviour.

There can be no greater betrayal of the principle of academic freedom than those ‘academics’ who forsake their intellectual oath to ingratiate themselves before political power in this way. It is the embodiment of political correctness and retards both rationality and originality. They have abandoned everything sacred about their profession; for they have agreed to a conclusion before investigating a premise, and that is the very definition of anti-intellectual behaviour.

They should be shamed, not celebrated.

An abbreviated version of this column first appeared in the Business Day. For more columns from The Thing About series, click here.

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