Free speech, not just for academe 4

January 12, 2007

There is still considerable confusion over the subject of academic freedom. To suggest that it "exists (only) within the constraints of our society" is false, because we live not in a medieval but in a strict sense a "scientific" society, where the content of knowledge is always expanding and is not subject to determination by authority.

"Thought is free" - as Shakespeare's Maria has to remind the fool Sir Andrew Aguecheek - and so it is highly desirably that it gets expressed, if only to be subject to critical scrutiny.It is therefore essential that we know what people are thinking rather than suppressing it.

"Society" is not something to be set against the academic community with its own sphere of interest - it is continuous with it. It too needs the maximum of knowledge. Milton tells us (in Areopagitica, his counterblast to press censorship) that he cannot "praise a cloistered virtue", meaning that goodness itself cannot be treated as a thing apart, but must be subjected to the test of rationality.

Voices raised against complete academic freedom appear to me to come mainly from people of a second-rate type or with only a peripheral interest in thinking and education. They are arrogating to themselves the right to decide the permissible areas of freedom of debate. Naturally, they do this on behalf of others such as students - but young students in particular need the assurance of trust in their teachers that can come only from a really frank exchange of views.

I strongly support those who affirm the right of untrammelled freedom of expression, but I have reservations about the solely "academic" context: who are the academics anyway?

I am an academic, but a freelance without salaried employment. Attacks on freedom of speech do not affect just the academy but the whole media and the community at large: it is the creeping build-up of the totalitarian state.

Nigel Probert

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