12 September 2014
“To impose any straightjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of the nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolute”.Chief Justice Earl Warren (1957)
This quote is part of a judgment made by Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court in a case that dealt with academic freedom. I think it perfectly encapsulates the value of academic freedom and the need to protect it.
In short it states that we need academic freedom in order for a nation to develop properly. Ideas need to be expressed freely and debated in order for the best solutions to be found. In some countries, like Indonesia, academic freedom is considered so important that it is actually protected specifically by law.
But what exactly is academic freedom? It is of course closely related to the freedom of expression. The difference is of course is that it is specifically referring to the academic context. Therefore it would mean that a n academic should have the freedom to research, publish and teach freely.
“Freely” does not mean absolute freedom of course. There will be limitations to academic freedom and the main (and some would argue the only) limitation has to be that of academic rigour. What is meant by academic rigour is that whatever an academic says, or publishes must be backed by sound research and reasoning.
If an academic’s work is found to be lacking either through poor research methodology, poor reasoning or the lack of academic honesty (for example through plagiarising), then his or her “punishment” will be the harsh criticism by their peers leading to a loss of credibility and respect. This in turn could lead to practical consequences such as their career suffering.
Up till now, the discussion has been about freedom strictly within the context of universities. But what about the role of academic freedom outside the university? Can the principles of academic freedom still apply?
I would argue that if an academic is speaking outside the university context (that is to say outside academic conferences, lectures and publications); the principle of academic freedom ought to still apply if he or she is speaking within their own field of expertise.
The reason I say this is because if academia is to free itself from the accusations of living in an ivory tower, then they have to somehow make their work and their expertise relevant to the public at large. A common term for such people is that they become public intellectuals.
By examining current affairs and matters of general concern, and applying their own expert take on the matter, an academic would be helping by providing ideas and thoughts on how to improve the situation. In this way the knowledge held will be put to good practical use for the sake of the community at large.
When an academic moves out from the university and into the public sphere, putting forward ideas that are from their research work and expertise, they are in fact making academia more relevant to the community. And as such academic freedom should also apply in public discourse.