Re-examining Academic Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

This is a guest post by Kenneth Garcia, a contributor to the newest issue of the Journal of Academic FreedomGarcia is the associate director of the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts at the University of Notre Dame, and author of the award-winning book Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University.

Do we in the academy understand the purpose of academic freedom properly and fully? I have some doubts. The core definition of academic freedom was articulated in the AAUP’s 1915 “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure:” the freedom of scholars to teach, to conduct research and present the results thereof, that “the scholar must be absolutely free not only to pursue his investigations but to declare the results of his researches, no matter where they may lead him or to what extent they may come into conflict with accepted opinion.” This definition—unfortunately omitted from the 1940 “Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure”—is central because knowledge discovered through free inquiry is sometimes unsettling; in some cases to ecclesiastical authorities and religious believers; in other cases to political and governmental leaders; sometimes to business interests.  And, I must add, it is sometimes unsettling to secular academic ideologies. Why the latter?  Because pursuing one’s investigations wherever they may lead just might lead one beyond the finite realms normally studied by disciplinary specialists into the realm of philosophical and even theological insight. By theological insight I do not mean pronouncements by religious authorities; nor do I mean adherence to dogmas or to literal interpretations of religious texts that must be accepted without skepticism and critical assessment; instead, I mean this:  an awareness that there is a surplus of knowledge and meaning to reality that transcends what can be known through ordinary disciplinary methods of inquiry – that findings in many fields of study hint at connections to a greater whole, and those connections should be pursued. Dare we refer to this awareness as subtly spiritual? I maintain it is.

Any topic, if pursued long and deeply enough, eventually leads to philosophical and even theological questions that cannot be answered from within the limits of any particular science. That is the point where the sciences and other disciplines can meet theology—broadly understood—and have a dialogue. Scholars should have the freedom and space to do that, freed of the shackles of narrow sectarianisms, both religious and secular.

By “sectarian” I mean a smug certainty of the truth of one’s own views and an intolerance of other viewpoints. Religious sectarianism is characterized by closed-mindedness, censorship, and exclusivity. Secular sectarianism, on the other hand, is a closed-minded, intolerant stance that refuses to consider theological or spiritual ways of knowing as valid or admissible within the academy. The secular sectarian rejects the possibility of religious reality outright, deeming religious knowledge and religious faith as nonsense, delusional, or in the case of scientists such as Richard Dawkins, evil. Secular universities have become increasingly sectarian in the sense of being doctrinaire concerning reigning ideologies, often intolerant of those who dissent from scientific and progressive orthodoxies, and dismissive of religious perspectives. And is it not a shame that scientific and ideological orthodoxies are not open enough to entertain well-grounded philosophical and theological theories that challenge often-unacknowledged disciplinary assumptions? Do such orthodoxies not mirror the authoritarianism and closed-mindedness of religious dogmatists?

Moreover, both religious and secular sectarianisms have their magisterial bodies, formal and informal, that determine just how far scholars may go in pursuing truth without running afoul of ideological orthodoxies.

Theology claims that the mind has an insatiable drive—an eros—for ever-greater understanding, for completeness of understanding within an ultimate horizon. Although scientists cannot discover anything corresponding to spiritual reality through accepted scientific methods of inquiry, their explorations often lead to the limits of scientific knowledge and to broader questions about the ultimate ground of existence, leading consciously or inchoately toward completeness of knowledge.

For example, when astrophysicists survey the vastness of the universe, learn of its great age and complexity, decipher its beginnings, and behold the grandeur of its laws, they are sometimes led to reflect on the mystery of the universe and to consider God. Think of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Paul Davies’ Cosmic Jackpot. Or the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle who initially rejected the Big Bang theory of the universe in favor of the Solid State theory, in part because he recognized the theistic implications of the Big Bang. Later, as evidence mounted, he came to embrace the possibility of a theistic position. Albert Einstein, an agnostic who rejected the belief systems of all organized religions, considered himself a deeply religious man in that he recognized a mysterious force within nature that cannot be grasped, even by an understanding of the fundamental laws of physics—a force which “reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.” Einstein also believed there is a deep consonance and harmony between science and religion. “Science without religion,” he said, “is lame; religion, without science, is blind.”

Scholars in all disciplines, especially those in religiously-affiliated universities, must be free to pursue connections between their disciplines and philosophical and even theological insight, however they may conceive the latter. The AAUP would do well to stipulate that in its policies.

Note:  A fuller discussion of this topic may be found in the 2014 issue of the Journal of Academic Freedom in “Religion, Sectarianism, and the Pursuit of Truth: Reexamining Academic Freedom in the 21st Century,” an essay based on Kenneth Garcia’s award-winning book, Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).

4 thoughts on “Re-examining Academic Freedom in the Twenty-First Century

  1. I’m sorry, but your thesis contradicts itself. If academics are free to express their views, then they are also free to express negative judgments of the views of others. For you to mislabel such negative views as “intolerance” in this context is contradictory.

    • Well, of course academics are free to express negative judgments of the views of others, and the blog post does not contend otherwise. What it contends is that those who want to explore knowledge beyond their disciplinary specializations into philosophical and theological contexts must also be free to do so. It is intolerant, and a breach of academic freedom, to prohibit or penalize that exploration for ideological reasons.

  2. The blogs on academic freedom so far have ignored the major fact that the vast majority of faculty, off the tenure track, have effectively zero academic freedom. This should be a major topic in every single article on the subject if it is to be relevant to the real world of most higher education in the USA.

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