Truth is our mission

August 12, 2005

Bob Brecher asks where academics' loyalties lie (Working Knowledge, August 5). Their key loyalty should be to their side of the contract they have with society, which entitles them to the trust, freedom and funding they receive.

Inquiry and instruction are flatly fraudulent unless those undertaking them are making the very best efforts to ascertain and convey the truth. When a specific inquiry reaches an adequate conclusion, it obliges agreement or more inquiry to refute it, and this interchange requires an evaluative community of peers within which it can take place. All this is the exercise of Bernard Williams's sort of intellectual virtue, to which the academy ought to aspire. An impartial commitment to that virtue legitimises the entitlement of academics to trust, freedom and funding.

We call falling short of that commitment "conniving". This is what scientists who suppress and distort results to suit their employers or governments do, and what we suspect universities might do when they accept less than disinterested patronage bounded by explicit or tacit conditions.

Equally, it is what the peer-review processes achieve that ensures that a journal publishes only the output of a clique and its proteges.

The right of academic freedom is a necessary condition for the academy to fulfil its duty to sustain human inquiry. In Umberto Eco's parable about inquiry, The Name of the Rose , Brother Jorge invokes Brecher's "collegial responsibility" to justify murdering dissidents and suppressing texts - the case against the inward-looking monastic ethos of the labyrinthine library is overwhelming.

A lot of conniving goes on in higher education, but this has always been the case. Human institutions and practice are fallible. But it does not follow that because our means of arriving at the truth are fallible, there is no truth. Bus timetables are fallible, but that does not mean there are no buses or that none reaches its destination.

Roger Harris, Newbury, Berks

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