Academics are telling students that our traditions are oppressive. In fact, it’s the academics we should be worried about.
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In my view, it is not—or not merely—a passion for freedom for its own sake. We want our young people and those responsible for teaching them to be free from repression or invidious discrimination, but we should fight for these freedoms for a reason that goes significantly beyond them. We should fight for free- dom from oppression on our campuses because we believe that academic freedom is freedom for something—something profoundly important, namely, the intellectual excellence that makes self-mastery possible. We want students and scholars to be able to pursue understanding, knowledge, and truth more robustly, and to appropriate the great goods of human intellectual striving more fully into their lives. We should honor academic freedom as a great and indispensable value because it serves other values—understanding, knowledge, and truth—that are greater still.
Although some have depicted freedom and truth as antithetical, in reality they are mutually support- ive and, indeed, dependent on each other. Any plau- sible and complete case for academic freedom will show it to be an essential means to knowledge. It is because we value truth that we value the freedom that enables us to discover it. The overwhelming evidence of history, not to mention the plain evidence under our noses from the contemporary situation, shows that freedom is as necessary to the intellectual life of man as oxygen is to his bodily life.
SHOULD ACADEMIC freedom be boundless? Of course not. But the scope of freedom must be generous—especially in the academy, where free inquiry, exploration, and experimentation are the primary purpose. Even within its legitimate bounds, can academic freedom not be abused? Of course it can be, and is. Academic freedom does not guarantee excellence (or even passable scholar- ship or teaching). Sometimes respect for it insulates abuses from correction. But, again, the lessons of his- tory and of our current situation are clear: repression of academic freedom—far from shielding us from error—undermines the process whereby errors are detected.
But someone might say: “There are many truths we know. Why must we permit them to be denied and questioned? Why not take the view that error— or at least clear error—has no rights? Otherwise, doesn’t the defense of academic freedom collapse into the self-stultifying denial of the possibility of truth? Doesn’t it make freedom, rather than truth, the ultimate academic value?”
In response to such worries I would argue that the possibility of error is not the primary or most powerful reason for honoring academic freedom— and protecting it even in areas where we are secure in our knowledge of the truth. The stronger and deeper reason is that freedom is the condition of our fuller appropriation of the truth. I use this term because knowledge and truth have their value for human beings precisely as fulfill- ment of capacities for understand- ing and judgment. The liberal arts are liberating of the human spirit because knowledge of truth—attained by the exercise of our ratio- nal faculties—is intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valu- able. “Useful knowledge” is, of course, all to the good, and it is wonderful when human knowledge can serve other human goods, such as health, as in the biomedical sciences, or economic efficiency and growth, or the constructing of great buildings and bridges, or any of a million other worthy purposes.
But even “useful knowledge” is often more than merely instrumentally valuable, and a great deal of knowledge that wouldn’t qualify as “useful” in the instrumental sense is intrinsically and profoundly enriching and liberating. This is why we honor—and should honor more highly than we currently do in our institutions of higher learning—academic excellence, whether in the humanities or the sciences. Knowledge that elevates and enriches— knowledge that liberates the human spirit—cannot be merely notional. It must be appropriated. It is not— it cannot be—merely a matter of affirming or even believing correct propositions. The knowledge that elevates and liberates is knowledge not only that something is the case, but why and how it is the case. And typically such knowledge does more than merely settle something in one’s mind; it opens new avenues of exploration. Its payoff includes new sets of questions, new lines of inquiry, and the affirma- tion of the intellectual life.
TO RETURN, THEN, TO the question: why respect freedom even where truth is known securely? I answer in the tradition of Socrates and, as Michael Novak would remind us, also the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church in its great Declaration on Religious Freedom: it is because freedom—freedom to inquire, freedom to assent or withhold assent as one’s best judgment dictates—is a condition of the personal appropriation of the truth by the human subject. Knowledge of truth is intrinsi- cally valuable not in some free-floating or abstract sense, but precisely as an aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of human beings—rational creatures whose flourishing consists in part in intellectual inquiry, understanding, and judgment and in the practice of the virtues that make these possible.
The freedom we must defend is freedom for the practice of these virtues. It is freedom for excellence, the freedom that enables us to master ourselves. It is a freedom that, far from being negated by rigorous standards of scholarship, demands them. It is not the freedom of “if it feels good, do it”; it is rather the freedom of self-transcendence, the freedom from slavery to self.
Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Juris- prudence at Princeton University and director of its James Madison Program in American Ideals and Insti- tutions. This essay is the seventh in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, “The Future of Individual Liberty: Elevating the Human Condition and Overcoming the Challenges to Free Societies.” The series is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this series are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.
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