Free speech, not just for academe 1

January 12, 2007

How many academics would award a PhD if it became evident during the viva, if not before, that the thesis presented represented the opinions of someone who had not studied the area, had not considered the relevant research or at any time subjected their findings to any form of peer review? One would hope not many.

For the same reason I would hope that most academics refused to sign the statement produced by Academics for Academic Freedom ("Scholars demand right to be offensive", December 22/29), not because they were "hirelings" but because they thought about it and found it embarrassingly silly and profoundly un-academic.

The guiding assumption of the statement is that a degree in one subject, together with a job teaching or conducting research in that subject, should confer a special licence to respect and protection in the espousal of views and opinions on anything whatsoever (implying alongside it that this right should apply only to those called "academics").J Dennis Hayes even has the temerity to call up the spirit of Socrates ("Verbal brawling is just what the academy needs", December 22/29) - usefully forgetting that Socrates' claim to be the true father of the academy lay in his determination to question and test received wisdom on the basis that he himself knew nothing. Were he alive today, the focus for the great man's searching questions would be the modern sophists, ably represented by the AFAF.J Academics, if they are sensible enough to ensure that the governance of their institution does not fall into the hands of those with other than academic interests, are able to question the governance and management of their institutions. Even those who are not so fortunate - and they are the majority - can generally comment and criticise managerial activity without fear for their jobs, and their colleagues should have the courage to rally around them if that is ever brought to the test.J The academy is founded on scholarship: it is the development of students'

critical faculties and it is what entitles an academic to question the received wisdom of their discipline. The inculcation of the spirit - and the discipline - of free, searching and rigorous inquiry in our students is not because they are future academics but because they are members of what we hope will remain an open society. To add a test of academic employment as the basis for free speech is to threaten open society and offers only the opportunity to march back boldly to a pre-renaissance age.

Andrew Morgan

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