Education, Indoctrination, and Academic Freedom

     Copyright © 2015

 Bruce W. Hauptli

The importance of academic freedom is most easily recognized when it is called into question—when inquiry proceeds unhindered, its preconditions go largely unnoticed.  Whenever individuals or groups call out for the banning of certain books or teachings; when calls go out for the censure of educators for their provocative, unconventional, or dangerous beliefs; or when individuals would restrict researchers from pursuing certain lines of inquiry; then the issue of academic freedom surfaces. 


     Academic freedom is essential to the educational enterprise.  If the goal of education were the instilling of various “approved” dogmas, then academic freedom would not only be unnecessary, it would be counterproductive.  Dogmas are best absorbed and taught uncritically.  Education and indoctrination are polar opposites however.  Education is centrally concerned with producing reasonableness.  It transforms individuals by developing their capacity for self-sufficiency and autonomy; by enhancing their intellectual powers; by cultivating their character and tastes; and by enabling them to seek, test, and hopefully discover knowledge and truth.  Such an enterprise requires a critical orientation.  Unfortunately, human fallibility and the elusiveness of knowledge and truth conspire to ensure that these goals are difficult to attain. 


     If we are to have any reasonable assurance of progressing toward these goals, we must become critical thinkers—individuals who seek, and are motivated by, rational justifications and reasons as they develop their beliefs and plan their actions.  Such individuals must be willing to question accepted beliefs and theories, willing to critically examine the facts and theories which they uncover in their pursuit of knowledge and truth, willing to present their findings publicly, and willing to await and welcome the critical scrutiny of others also engaged in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.  This sort of critical orientation is possible only if there is full-fledged “academic” freedom—the freedom of the learner, educator, or researcher to engage in the unhindered pursuit of truth and knowledge. 


     This sort of freedom has ancient roots and comes to us from the classical Greeks via the Medieval universities, the renaissance, the age of reason, and the American Bill of Rights.  While it has been variously interpreted during different historical periods, ‘academic freedom’ refers centrally to a freedom on behalf of the learner, teacher, or researcher to pursue a course of studies unhindered by external pressures, and the freedom to discuss and publish the results of the inquiry process.  While academic freedom is usually associated with colleges and universities, its roots in Athens before the founding of the Academy should serve to indicate that what is fundamentally at issue is freedom of inquiry generally speaking.  “Academic” freedom should be seen as applying to “self-educated” individuals pursuing their inquiries on their own, as well as to students, educators, or researchers who pursue their studies at recognized educational institutions. 


     Academic freedom is not a license to engage in utterly unrestricted behavior.  Students may not appeal to it as they physically abuse other students or shout down the educators they encounter, educators may not appeal to it as they seek to indoctrinate their students, administrators or other authorities may not appeal to it as they seek to restrict certain lines of teaching or inquiry, and researchers may not appeal to it as they engage in morally reprehensible research activities.  Those who claim the protection afforded by academic freedom must accept a correlative responsibility—the responsibility of critically discussing and justifying their behavior and procedures when these are questioned.  If their behavior or procedures are indefensible, academic freedom should not offer the protection sought.  Thus biology instructors who would dissect their students, or students who would shout down their instructors may not appropriately appeal to academic freedom to justify their activities. 


     Whatever the motivations of the individual inquirer, student, educator, or researcher, the pursuit of knowledge and truth is not one which is of mere individual utility.  Society and humanity at large benefit from the pursuit of these goals since knowledge and truth empower us by enabling us to engage in effective action in a largely indifferent environment.  Moreover, these pursuits engender a particular sort of human happiness—they activate those pleasures which result from the successful exercise of our rational capacities.  These pleasures are unknown to non-rational creatures and few of us would wish to divest ourselves of these pleasures once we have experienced them.  Indeed it is only by pursuing knowledge and truth that we can quench the thirst which is manifested by our inherent curiosity.  Only the most dogmatic cultures and “learning” environments succeed in deadening this basic human trait, and few believe such environments are happy ones. 


     Where independent inquirers, students, educators, or researchers find their freedom of inquiry illegitimately restrained, we all suffer.  Whether the inquirer is questioning current beliefs and mores or is engaged in scholarly or empirical researches aimed at expanding the frontiers of human understanding and knowledge, it is society at large which benefits.  When the researcher strikes out on the wrong path, academic freedom ensures that others will be able to expose the errors and learn from the mistakes.  Where the researcher strikes out on a promising path, academic freedom ensures that valuable corrections may be provided by others and ensures that others may become aware of the promising direction.  Academic freedom ensures that the inquirers may choose the path and it is valuable whether the path is promising or not because we learn from our mistakes as well as from our successes—the discovery of error is part of the process of uncovering truth and arriving at knowledge—especially for fallible creatures such as ourselves. 


     Those who would restrict an individual’s inquiries must accept a heavy burden of proof.  Whenever one wishes to silence an independent inquirer or student, to deter an educator from teaching certain views, or to stop a researcher from pursuing a line of inquiry, one must present a convincing argument which clearly establishes that the proposed restrictions are appropriate.  Such arguments are difficult to sustain given the value of a maximally-free inquiry process. 


     Unfortunately, it is usually fear and ignorance which motivate the calls for censure.  Those who feel that certain books, teachings, or inquiries threaten the fabric of society or culture actually evince little faith in the strength of this fabric.  Such individuals might consider the words of Thomas Jefferson in his Inaugural Address in 1801: “if there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”1 


     The true strength or value of a belief is not measured by how many hold to it or by how long it holds sway.  Instead, a belief’s strength or value is measured by its ability to withstand unhindered critical scrutiny.  Those views which stand in mortal danger because no one will subscribe to them once alternatives are available are beliefs which individuals should not subscribe to—not views to be protected at all costs. 


     As I noted, academic freedom is usually considered to apply to institutions of “higher learning.”  This is only natural since these institutions are dedicated to the pursuit of truth, knowledge and understanding.  Those outside often feel that there is too little restriction within universities or colleges—they advocate a more restricted environment wherein certain beliefs or theories are not studied or taught.  If their efforts lead to such restrictions, these individuals actually destroy the university or college.  Where these efforts are undertaken to protect some favored dogma, the individuals who champion the restrictions would force their particular ideology upon the university or college.  Their success undercuts the search for knowledge and truth and, thus, harms not only the university or college, but the society as well. 


     Academic freedom is not limited to institutions of “higher” education however.  When students and educators in the primary and secondary schools are not granted a full measure of academic freedom, these institutions cease to be educational institutions and instead become instruments of indoctrination.  Similarly, where public libraries and librarians find their academic freedom restrained they become mere storage depots for certain “preferred” volumes, and self-education is rendered difficult (if not nearly impossible). 


     A society which has universities, colleges, secondary schools, primary schools, and libraries without academic freedom is one dedicated to the uncritical preservation and inculcation of particular dogmas.  Lacking a dedication to the pursuit of knowledge and truth, such a society can not prosper since it actively precludes one form of human happiness (the pleasures associated with knowledge and inquiry).  Indeed, it will survive only if it is fantastically lucky (since an unhindered inquiry process is requisite for knowledge and truth).  We are fortunate we do not live in such a blighted community; but without vigilance, we may find ourselves inhabiting such a society.  Those who would restrict academic freedom should find comfort in the very academic freedom they would fight.  If the views which they would restrict are wrong, then the very academic freedom they rebel against will serve to expose such error. 



Note: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)


1 Cited by Fritz Machlup in his “On Some Misconceptions Concerning Academic Freedom,” which is “Appendix B” of Academic Freedom and Tenure: A Handbook of the American Association of University Professors, ed. L. Joughin (Madison: Wisconsin, 1969), p. 197.  Originally the essay appeared in: AAUP Bulletin v. 41 (1955), pp. 753-784.  Machlup indicates that the citation is from Thomas Jefferson’s Inaugural Address March 4, 1801, and it is reprinted in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1903) v. III, p. 319. 


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File last revised on Friday, July 17, 2015