Securing Academic Liberty

Patrick Deneen, self-described as a post-liberal, one of the most brilliant bomb-throwers on the American intellectual scene today, has written an article with the provocative title, “Against Academic Freedom.” It takes issue with Roman Catholics who defend academic freedom, not excluding Robert George of Princeton, the most influential Catholic thinker in America and a founder of the Academic Freedom Alliance (of which I am a member).

Deneen opposes academic freedom because he sees it as a weak shield for protecting the intellectual liberty of the few remaining conservatives in secular universities. The ideal of academic freedom, Deneen believes, only pretends to be neutral among competing claims to truth. In fact, it conceals substantive commitments to progressive ideology. In Catholic universities like Notre Dame, where Deneen teaches, advocacy of academic freedom is tantamount, he claims, to opposing the religious mission of those universities’ founders. As he quite correctly points out, the ideal of academic freedom, when it took hold in American universities during the Progressive Era, was designed in part to undermine and ultimately replace the explicitly religious commitments held by almost all American universities of that era. (A brilliant account of this transformation is given in chapter 6 of Brad Gregory’s undervalued 2012 book, The Unintended Reformation.) Hence it should be no surprise that persons committed to preserving traditional beliefs and settled ways of life in Christian universities should now find themselves an embattled minority. That was the purpose all along.

Deneen traces the ideological origins of academic freedom to John Stuart Mill who, though often described as a classical liberal, was in fact a forerunner of the modern woke university with its radical sexual politics and deep attachment to socialism. Mill’s famous “harm principle”—that no form of expression should be prohibited unless it brought demonstrable harm to another—while seemingly neutral, in fact had the substantive purpose of displacing, in favor of a commitment to cultural change (“progress”), “traditional forms of culture and long-standing belief.” Mill discarded the traditional meaning of freedom—as self-rule or as free choice within the constraints of morality— and introduced a new meaning, freedom as self-actualization, which included the freedom to challenge traditional morality and even the limits of human nature. Mill’s On Liberty was a call to break the “despotism of custom,” by political action if necessary. The existing social order should be reshaped into a laboratory of what Mill called “experiments in living.” A moral transformation of society would then ensue, leading to a new “religion of humanity” and the creation of heaven on earth.  

Deneen denies that any academic community can really be organized to preserve value neutrality and offer complete openness to any and all ideas. (The subtitle of his piece is “There is no ‘open society.’”) All communities have norms and boundaries that govern speech and limit certain forms of expression. In academic communities, we must show respect for institutional goals, for the learning and scientific reputation of teachers, for arguments advanced by reasonable opponents, and for standards of politeness and decency. These norms constitute the community’s underlying shared beliefs. If the university’s purpose is to educate Christians, assertion of common religious beliefs ought to be included among them. Since “academic freedom” on Deneen’s understanding is a dogma of progressive religion, it is therefore incompatible with the values of a Christian university. Tradition-minded conservatives in secular universities dominated by ideals of academic freedom can only be heretics concealed in the congregation of the progressive faithful, or the last vestiges of a defeated army being hunted down by victorious militants. When Christian colleges agreed to give up mandatory chapel attendance, parietal rules, required courses in religion, professions of faith by new faculty hires and the like, these concessions to the norms of “academic freedom” were nothing more than the terms dictated by progressive victors to their defeated foes.

There is much in Deneen’s critique that will resonate with conservatives and especially conservative Christians. It certainly resonates with me. I have studied and worked for half a century in secular universities, and in that time, there has ordinarily existed among most of my teachers and colleagues an unspoken assumption that politically conservative beliefs reflected interest rather than principle, and Christian beliefs were based on stubborn adherence to dogma rather than rational argument. Claims to the contrary were treated with skepticism. Yet, earlier in my career, scientists or scholars with conservative or religious beliefs could be treated fairly, so long as their research did not appeal to the authority of traditions indefensible by common standards of rationality. I think gratefully of many teachers and colleagues who knew my beliefs but encouraged and helped me, despite their own very different commitments. They did this because they believed I could contribute to research programs recognized as valuable by the common standards of the academic community.

In the current climate, when universities increasingly see their role as training social justice warriors, environmental activists, or advocates for radical gender ideology, the likelihood that persons with traditional beliefs will be treated fairly or even tolerated at all has declined. Yet one can deplore this situation without conceding that the ideal of academic freedom is without value. Here we need to deploy the old scholastic principle that counsels against extreme positions:  Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish. So let me make some distinctions.

In my view, Deneen’s position is well taken in the case of academic institutions explicitly committed to serving religious faiths. If young Catholics go to Notre Dame and graduate as agnostics or merely nominal Catholics, the university has plainly failed in its mission. It may have given its graduates a fine education by the standards of the secular world, but it has not formed its graduates in the way that the university’s founders and backers intended. It is perfectly legitimate for such an institution to take whatever measures it deems necessary to protect and enrich the faith of its graduates. If sticking to its mission means that it will be at a disadvantage in competition with its “aspirational peers” in the Ivy League—an outcome one may doubt—then so be it. To believe otherwise is to disclose a lack of faith in the school’s mission. It is to exchange its birthright for a mess of pottage.

Deneen is right that religious schools have, or should have, a shared conception of the good and should not treat all conceptions of the good as though they were of equal value. To be a believer means that you accept some truths and reject others. This does not mean that students in  Christian institutions have to cover their ears with wax to protect them from the Siren voices of secularism. Christian teachers often present alternative visions of the good in the classroom, acting as advocati diaboli. This is an accepted pedagogical tactic that Christian controversialists have used for centuries to strengthen the faith of believers. But, like Ulysses, they should first be tied to the mast of orthodoxy by strong institutional constraints.

The practice of scientific and many humane disciplines is incompatible with dogmatism. They require openness to evidence and argument and even to entirely new and different ways of conceptualizing long-standing problems.

The case of secular research institutions is different. Here the problem is that universities have abandoned the principles they adopted in the Progressive Era when the American research university was founded. In that period, it was well understood that science and scholarship could not flourish unless their practitioners were willing to take seriously any theses advanced by qualified members of the academic community. There were legitimate ways to propose and test scientific hypotheses and legitimate rules of debate and interpretation that must be applied in literary, philosophical, and historical study.

These methods are much older and more deeply rooted in the Western tradition than the musings of John Stuart Mill. In the case of the sciences, their methods were elaborated by proto-scientific communities in the seventeenth century and made use of methodological frameworks that go back to Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. In the case of philosophical debate, the forms of argument, which entail openness to refutation, go back to the medieval university and ultimately to Socrates. The canons of source criticism in my own discipline of history go back to the philological and antiquarian methods developed by Renaissance scholars like Angelo Poliziano and Joseph Scaliger, and, in the seventeenth century, the great Jean Mabillon, OSB, founder of the disciplines of paleography and diplomatics.

The practice of all of these disciplines is incompatible with dogmatism. They require openness to evidence and argument and even to entirely new and different ways of conceptualizing long-standing problems. They do not flourish in highly politicized academic communities that are willing to set sound methods aside and exclude heterodox voices in the pursuit of partisan goals. If academic freedom has a legitimate purpose in research universities, it is to defend the wider principles necessary for the fruitful conduct of teaching and research. Like all freedoms, academic freedom can be abused, and society as a whole must be allowed the means to defend itself against abuses that threaten our common life together. Academic freedom—and here again one can agree with the post-liberals—is not an absolute value. It does not and cannot trump the common good.

The modern woke university represents a betrayal of the accepted principles on which modern research universities were long based, and of the scientists, scholars, administrators, and benefactors who fostered them in our country for well over a century. They also represent a betrayal of the public trust—of our fellow citizens and their representatives in state and federal governments. The latter have long given lavish support to institutions of higher learning, public and private, in the belief that they contribute to the common good. The common good is not observed when institutions of higher learning openly take sides in political controversies, as has become increasingly common, or when they devote the resources of their institutions to supporting the partisan goals of particular political movements. Partisanship (studia partium in Latin, zeal for parts over wholes) is etymologically and philosophically the opposite of the common good.

Of course, the legitimate freedoms of teaching and research need to be insulated from the passions of democratic government. The contemplative life needs a degree of independence from the pressures of politics, something that the founders of Western universities in the Middle Ages understood very well. You cannot have a serious debate about Aquinas or Darwin without entertaining the possibility that they may have been wrong. But preserving the independence of scientists and scholars depends on the practical wisdom of university administrators, faculty, and even students. When the university involves itself in factional politics, it forfeits its right to independence from political interference. When half of the electorate believes that the academy represents an interest group hostile to their own interests, the universities are either acting against the common good or have failed to make a persuasive case that they are acting for it. The claim that half of the electorate is too stupid or ignorant to perceive academia’s beneficent purposes is in effect an argument ad hominem, or rather ad homines. It is a fallacious argument that merely registers a failure to persuade.

Sooner or later, perhaps quite soon, the federal government will come under the control of a political party disfavored by the partisan commitments of many elite American universities. When that time comes, the new government will be entirely within its rights to demand that public funding, including scholarships and student loans, be withdrawn from institutions that engage in partisan politics. This would be a radical step, but an equal and opposite reaction may be the only means of arresting academe’s recent slide into radicalism. Such a sharp reminder of their obligations to the larger society might even give courage to those persons of good will and practical wisdom who still exist within the woke university. Those of us who value ordered liberty can and indeed must share with “post-liberals” the conviction that we can no longer surrender academe to the woke in deference to an absolutist conception of academic freedom. Academic freedom is too important to allow it to be defined by the enemies of freedom.