Why We Must Save Intellectual Freedom

It is imperative that we restore intellectual freedom in higher education in order to preserve freedom for society itself.

Caroline C. Lewis · Feb. 1, 2018

It’s no secret that the modern college campus has become a place hostile to intellectual freedom. Trigger warnings, thought control and speech laws have transformed what used to be places of learning into microcosms of ideological conformity. Students across the country have learned to conceal their thoughts, opinions and even questions in exchange for a passing grade. Acceptance by the group-think ruling elites supersedes the pursuit of knowledge, learning and truth.

The “right” to not be offended has replaced the right to have an opinion differing from accepted academic dogma. Ironically, in a country founded upon freedom of speech and the value of the individual, many American universities function as independent totalitarian regimes with full rights to punish intellectual dissidents with lower grades. It is as if the American university has morphed into East Berlin, while the rest of the country lives in the freedom of West Berlin.

Restoring intellectual freedom to the university means examining the fault lines and courageously confronting them. In his book, The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom, National Association of Scholars President Peter Wood states, “Academic freedom is a combination of freedom from indoctrination and freedom to engage in disciplined inquiry, which includes the freedom to read, hear, and consider views that differ from those of their instructors.”

Academic freedom therefore consists of two things. 1) Freedom from indoctrination and 2) Freedom to consider other views. First, freedom from indoctrination means that professors should teach facts, not opinions. They should fairly represent all views. They should grade on basis of the quality of the student’s work, rather their own opinions. Professors should not take advantage of the youth and naïveté of students in order to further their political aspirations to indoctrinate others.

Furthermore, students should have the freedom to consider other views and question presuppositions. Wood describes this freedom as, “The freedom to ask questions; the freedom to challenge assumptions and doctrines; the freedom to criticize; the freedom to speculate; the freedom to re-examine old evidence and to search for new evidence; the freedom to express what one has found; the freedom to hear others who seek to express what they have found; the freedom to engage in dialogue with informed peers; the freedom to read and consider the views of people who lived before one’s own time; the freedom to teach what one has, by diligent effort learned; and even the freedom to refrain from speaking.”

This type of freedom has traditionally made the university experience a unique time of life in which students take the time to reflect and ask questions. If academic leaders bar certain questions or conclusions, it compromises the pursuit of knowledge and critical thinking. It only encourages students to memorize and parrot facts, in order to stay safe and pass the class. In contrast, Wood notes, “Intellectual freedom is the freedom of an individual to make up his own mind.”

Students also have a right to a third freedom: the freedom to learn without interruptions, disruptive protests, yelling, or having a student dominate the class discussion. Students must have the freedom to pursue their education and learning experience. When a university gives “freedom” to disruptive students on the basis of freedom of speech, they actually deny the freedom of the other students to learn. Disruptive students perceive freedom as being the “right” to do whatever they want, whenever they want, to whomever they please. Yet this is not freedom, but rather, license. True freedom does not exist without responsibility. It is responsibility to oneself and responsibility to others. It was known in prior days as “civility.”

Wood observes that the implementation of intellectual freedom ultimately depends upon the collective willingness of students, faculty and administrations to abide by the rules of civility. Such civility and mutual respect allows students the freedom to question, criticize, test new evidence and ultimately to learn.

Without an honest pursuit of intellectual freedom, we fail to shape students into responsible citizens capable of understanding and stewarding a free society. Transposing the totalitarian nature of some universities that bar speakers and arbitrarily label dissident opinions as “hateful,” “insensitive,” “bigoted” or “racist,” onto the rest of society, we see the inevitable thought-control bleeding into our culture. Yet, who decides the acceptable from the unacceptable speech? The loudest voice. The strongest voice. The most coercive voice. And this voice rarely reflects the voice of the people. It is therefore imperative that we restore intellectual freedom in higher education in order to preserve freedom for society itself.

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