Free speech and freedom

June 4, 2009

Writing almost 40 years ago, at a time when free speech and the struggle for liberty in wider society was a reality, Anthony Arblaster commented that "academic freedom" was "a rather pompous term for freedom of, and within, education". Today academics are pompous not about their freedom but about defending their narrow professional role and see it as separate from the "free speech" of citizens. Andrew Morgan (Letters, 21 May) has a jobsworth's view of academic freedom, which he defines as "the untrammelled autonomy of study and the associated right to publish the results of honest research". But why pay anyone a considerable amount of money to do this? It is fashionable to separate academic freedom and free speech in an era when they are less valued than ever before.

The trouble with the academics who make this separation is that they do not see what their work really is: in a word, criticism. Being critical within their subject specialism should dispose academics to be critics of everything: other disciplines, management, social trends and political action.

Most academics keep their heads down and publish for professional reward. This self-defeating approach will cost them their jobs because if they do not defend free speech and academic freedom as indivisible, no one else will defend this freedom or their jobs.

Dennis Hayes, Academics for Academic Freedom.

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