Can't define freedom

January 26, 2007

We can't usefully discuss academic freedom without considering the forces arrayed against it. These include: managerialism - the essence of which is to put those in authority against those promoting learning; the quest for "socially responsible" science - also inimical to the spirit of free inquiry; and the "social" idea that wants to subordinate the university to what is held to be the social interest (which turns out to be the interest of management or government).

Therefore, it is disturbing that much opposition to academic freedom comes from within academia itself. Andrew Morgan's letter (January 12) is typical: he would like academic freedom to be restricted to a narrow area of competence defined by the formal assessment and accreditation of academics. The putative claims of scholars are thus turned against the academic community - perhaps unsurprisingly, as scholarship is the digging up and sifting of evidence, not the production of original ideas, which so often offend.

The other sort of attack is the legalistic demand for a "definition" of academic freedom. Freedom is by definition a "great negative"; it is marked by an absence of constraint. To define freedom as freedom "for" this or that is inevitably to narrow it, and freedom with an explicit purpose is not freedom at all but a form of empowerment (and disempowerment).

My concern with Academics for Academic Freedom's proposed statement of academic freedom is that it is not broad enough. These points are essential: first, the right of freedom of expression; second, the right of freedom of association; third, freedom of investigation; and, fourth, the ownership of the academic's work in teaching or research as his or her intellectual property. The other critical thing is security of academic tenure. Academics should be protected in the same way as judges.

The most heartening development is the appearance of private tuition. This would guarantee freedom since there are few means by which to discipline the recalcitrant academic whose views "offend".

Nigel Probert

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