Political Editors / May 26, 2021

In Brief: Stop Defending ‘Academic Freedom’

Michael Knowles says UNC was right to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones.

“Academic freedom” is something conservatives generally advocate, in large part because we’re rarely granted it. That was one of the arguments advanced by Peter Wood last week. But the Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles offers a compelling counterpoint:

Finally some good news on campus: Nikole Hannah-Jones has been denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. Although Hannah-Jones, the New York Times fabulist behind the anti-historical 1619 Project, had secured the endorsement of the school’s journalism department, the university’s board of trustees has intervened to deny her permanent employment.

The trustees made the right decision. Hannah-Jones has won impressive accolades, including the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Pulitzer Prize, but she deserves none of them. As academic historians from across the political spectrum noted when the 1619 Project first appeared, Hannah-Jones’s entire thesis depends upon a lie. “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain,” Hannah-Jones argued, “was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Hannah-Jones provided no evidence for her central claim because none exists.

Should someone so reckless with facts and scholarship enjoy the “academic freedom” to corrupt the minds of our children? Hardly, Knowles says, despite the predictable condemnation of leftists as well as some on the free-speech-supporting Right.

“Academic freedom” as we understand the term today does not exist. It is a “hoax” and “superstition,” to borrow of words of William F. Buckley Jr., who launched both his career and the postwar conservative movement with a book inveighing against it. All universities must have a mission, Buckley argued, which means that educators must structure their lectures toward advancing that mission and leave sermons that contradict it out of the classroom. Scholars may pursue whichever intellectual pursuits they fancy on their own time and dollar, but they have no right to indoctrinate students in their nonsense.

Buckley attacked universities for justifying their godless and collectivist curricula on the basis of academic freedom over the objections of parents and alumni. “In the last analysis,” Buckley concluded, “academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support,” just as the UNC trustees have done in the case of Nikole-Hannah Jones. Buckley encouraged alumni to withhold donations until universities encouraged Christian morality and free-market economics. Today, many self-styled conservatives relegate themselves to making piddling pleas for “intellectual diversity” in the hopes that radicals don’t run them off campus altogether.

Buckley’s intellectual heirs have flipped his stance on “academic freedom” — a development I chronicle at length in my upcoming book Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds. But WFB and the countless conservatives who came before him had it right. Universities educate, which means they necessarily encourage certain ideas and discourage others. Neutrality is an illusion.

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