Against Academic Freedom
There is no “Open Society”
[Note: this column appeared in the most recent issue of The Irish Rover, a student publication at the University of Notre Dame. The author gratefully acknowledges the permission of its editors to reprint the column on this site. You can read the full edition here.]
My colleague and friend Professor Dan Philpott has written a lengthy essay in these pages defending academic freedom within the university, including and especially at the University of Notre Dame. He joins other prominent conservative Catholic voices in calling for the robust defense of academic freedom, notably Professor Robert George of Princeton University and our own Professor Phillip Munoz. Professor George has even co-founded an institution—“The Academic Freedom Alliance”—that makes the defense of academic freedom its mission, in particular seeking to forge an alliance between religious conservatives and various secular “classical liberals” such as Professors Jonathan Haidt and Steven Pinker.
The reason for these vocal calls and a well-funded initiative is obvious: universities have become places of orthodoxy and increasingly homogenous belief. While party affiliation is a very rough and inaccurate guide, nevertheless, the composition of professoriate and students at elite universities skews massively to the political left. A 2020 survey by the Harvard Crimson found that 38% of professors at Harvard identified as “very liberal” and 41% as “liberal,” while just 1% of Harvard faculty identified as “conservative.” A raft of other surveys note that campaign donations by faculty at leading institutions to Democrats far outstrips donations to Republicans, typically on the order of 90% or more in favor of the political left.
The result of this political composition is well-documented: students and faculty at elite and many major universities increasingly seek to disallow unacceptable voices—typically conservatives—from presentations, debate, and discussion. Disinvitations to speakers, protests at commencements and other official events, and disruptions during presentations have become commonplace on a large number of college campuses.
It is thus understandable that faced with the rising ferocity of critics and overwhelming opposition throughout academe, academic freedom seems the best protection for the ideas and beliefs of these scholars.
It is worth asking, however, how we got to this point. The implicit assumption of the likes of Philpott, George, and Munoz is that the new campus “orthodoxy” represents a betrayal of academic freedom, and the resolute application of the newly-baptized ideal is its natural corrective. What they miss is that this new orthodoxy is not a departure from what they believe to be aims of academic freedom, but is, in fact, its very object.
The origins of “academic freedom” that predominates at universities today was, in the first instance, explicitly and intentionally advanced in opposition to the distinct identity of Christian institutions and society. Secondly, its aim was not ultimately to promote all views, but to advance a set of substantive commitments that were implicit in a liberal conception of freedom that was directly opposed to the classical and Catholic understanding of liberty.
Many of today’s Catholic defenders invoke the arguments of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty as the foundational text in defense of intellectual freedom, including academic freedom. Mill famously articulated the “harm principle,” forbidding limitation of any view, belief, opinion, and even action, unless it could be proven that someone (usually someone else) was demonstrably harmed by the expression or act. Seemingly neutral, this principle appeared to defend the liberty of any form of expression or belief—whether religious or secular, mainstream or quirky.
However, Mill was clear that what this ideal of liberty aimed to do was to displace traditional forms of culture and long-standing belief in favor of progress. Liberty was not merely good in itself, but was to serve the advance of social and human transformation. The means of this transformation was the support and promotion of the liberty of those who wished to engage in “experiments in living.” If such “experiments” were disapproved by those with customary belief—particularly religious believers—Mill was clear that the “despotism of Custom” was to be overturned, even through the imposition of political power if necessary.
Once liberated from the stultifying confines of traditional society, Mill argued, the human capacity for self-creation would be unleashed. The liberation of spontaneous, creative, unpredictable, unconventional, often offensive forms of individuality was the object of Mill’s praise. Mill believed that the fruits of such liberty was especially beneficial for the educated, artistic, and entrepreneurial—those who stood to benefit from a society marked by constant change and instability. By reshaping the social order into a laboratory of experimentation, society could now experience history: the movement of an entire society in an upward, progressive trajectory. Those who defended beliefs of the past, who treasured and defended settled ways of life, who believed that custom was a form of preserving common sense and historical experience, were to be aggressively superseded. Is it any wonder or coincidence that “conservatives” and religious believers have all but disappeared from faculty on college campuses? The skew in a progressive direction results directly from the wholly intended purposes of “academic freedom.”
Mill hoped that a moral transformation of humanity would follow the liberation from unquestioned custom. He believed that once liberty unleashed opportunities for self-creation, not just a few individuals would benefit, but ultimately, a new social order—indeed, moral, and even quasi-religious order—would emerge. He believed that, liberated from the dead hand of the past, people would become more enlightened, more social, and, ultimately, communist, transcending their identity as individual selves. At points, he endorsed a naturalistic religion that would culminate in a “religion of humanity”—aimed at the creation of a heaven on earth. As we know too well today, such teachings have been the source of great mischief and misery when inspiring a politics aimed at perfecting humanity.
An earlier generation of Catholic educators discerned the substantive commitments contained within the doctrine of academic freedom, and denounced it as a practice that would ultimately undermine not just the religious underpinnings of Catholic institutions, but would also displace the existing belief system of the United States with another creed altogether. One Catholic institution rejected academic freedom as “a pretext to teach systems which destroy all freedom.” This institution was Fairfield University—a Jesuit university—which in 1959 “proudly boasts that as a Catholic institution it has taught and will always teach the principles on which rest all law, order, and right government.”
No, these critics of academic freedom were not the predecessors of “integralists”—they were presidents, faculty, and administrators of universities such as Georgetown and Fairfield, among others, who warned that their Catholic foundations would be destroyed by the substantive progressive philosophy contained within the arguments of academic freedom. These administrators and faculty were far-seeing: today, most Catholic colleges and universities are barely in any recognizable sense Catholic at all, but instead merely ape their secular “aspirational peers” in every substantive respect. Notre Dame is expeditiously careening down this same path.
A second mistaken understanding by today’s Catholic defenders of academic freedom follows from this first. Today’s defenders of academic freedom claim that it is the necessary condition to pursue the truth in spite of the efforts by today’s progressives to limit campus speech. Only by allowing all views, all perspectives, any and all challenges, these defenders argue, can we come to discern the truth.
This position assumes two points that a confident Catholic institution would reject. First, truth is not wholly unknown, and thus does not require an approach that assumes that any and all views require representation so that any orthodoxy can be challenged. Second, and more insidiously, it suggests that human institutions such as universities can be organized on the principle of thorough openness and absolute neutrality, eschewing any influence or commitment to an underlying philosophy, belief, even faith.
Professor Philpott is correct in arguing that universities should be institutions in which a variety of views are entertained. They should not be echo chambers. However, his argument neglects the actual ways that humans interact, satisfied to make claims (like so many others) on the plain of abstract philosophy. He states that students should feel free and welcome to make any argument that they wish in their classes, in their dormitories, over a meal in the dining hall. The same should go for faculty. But of course, any sensible student knows that such a condition of “pure” openness never exists—nor should any of us want it to exist.
Every student—at least one who get into a school like Notre Dame—has a good sense of the boundaries of speech, which are most often not written in any legal code, official document, or student handbook. Those boundaries are set by the norms of the human community in which we live, which usually include a degree of deference to parental or professorial authority, respect for other people, and recognition that “polite society” calls for avoidance of obscenity, insult, and denigration. Everyone recognizes the broad norms and beliefs that generally ought not to be directly confronted, except in very exceptional circumstances (the principle of human equality is certainly one that qualifies). We have a good sense of how these boundaries on conversation can expand and contract depending upon our immediate interlocutors and circumstances, “code-switching” between occasional crudeness with our friends over a beer to refined conversation at a formal occasion.
Universities are no different. We pursue truth, but we also recognize boundaries. Universities are always, to some degree, a “collegium”— meaning “community,” “society,” or “guild” in Latin. A community is defined by boundaries, norms, shared views and beliefs. While theoretically free, we are in fact bounded by cognizance of and respect for our interlocutors.
At root, human communities—universities among them—have always been based on an underlying shared belief and, almost always, some deeply-held religious belief. In such communities, there may—and probably always will—be both dissenters within the tradition and strangers from outside the tradition, but the norms governing the community are expected to be acknowledged and respected.
Throughout the twentieth-century, the nature of collegia changed: we moved from the religious foundations of our colonial colleges to the academic norms of the modern university. But these institutions have not ceased to be governed by norms and defined by boundaries. Over time they came to adopt a new religion: the religion promised by “academic freedom,” the religion of John Stuart Mill, or even the “religion of humanity.” What we today call “woke” is the new religious orthodoxy, having fully replaced the original religious beliefs and practices of the original institutions whose buildings and mottos remain the same, but whose gods have changed.
Decades ago, when institutions were still governed by those older Christian tenets, proponents of academic freedom decried limits on speech, the barring of certain speakers, mandatory chapel, professions of faith by prospective faculty, requirements in theological studies, moral norms governing student behavior, and so forth. They were largely successful in overturning the Christian basis of most institutions—not to the end, ultimately, of “pure” neutrality, but to replace the old norms with new norms.
Today we witness many administrators of most academic institution calling for the imposition of new speech codes, the banning of certain ideas, mandatory quasi-worship of the new gods of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, proposals for new core requirements in this new “theology,” and a new star chamber that investigates student and faculty breaches of the new theology. At campuses around the nation—including Notre Dame—there is pressure to hire and tenure faculty who conform to the new woke “religion”—arguments often advanced by administrators and faculty who only a few years ago decried any such efforts when undertaken in the effort to hire and tenure Catholic faculty. No human community can be neutral or indifferent; rather, we need instead ask, what will be its animating belief?
Universities constitute a unique kind of community. Its members are chosen: faculty are hired and students are admitted. The collegium of the elite institutions of higher education are today defined by the substantive commitments arising from Mill’s aspirations of “academic freedom”: progress, social transformation, moral perfection. While seemingly “neutral,” the modern research university consists of definite boundaries and substantive commitments. Faculty who aspire to join such an institution must conform to the research ideal, whose fundamental orientation is toward progress and transformation of society. Millian ideals are now contained in the foundational commitments of the institution, and over time will—and do—transform every institution in keeping with its deepest substantive beliefs.
The consequence is obvious: the distinct missions and identities at places such as Notre Dame will cease to exist as it continues to model itself on the alternate religion of the modern university—those contained in the very commitments contained in the philosophy of John Stuart Mill. Like a frog being slowly boiled, the same process that has replaced an older faith tradition with a new faith at nearly every college and university in America is advancing daily at Notre Dame, now accelerated by its enthusiastic embrace of the new theology of wokeness that is rapidly replacing whatever remained of its Catholic identity.
Since creating a “neutral” community is impossible, the answer to the “woke” religion that is spreading among elites who run our nation’s main institutions is not to invoke “academic freedom,” “religious liberty,” or hopes for neutrality. Those arguments—successfully made by people like J.S. Mill nearly two centuries ago—never sought to create a “neutral” or open society. Rather, they were arguments that contained a set of substantive commitments to a social and political order fundamentally different than one governed by Christian norms: individualism, progressivism, materialism, scientism, utilitarianism, all leading to the “religion of humanity.”
In the end, abstract arguments about academic freedom are secondary to the question of what kind of community, what sort of collegium would mark a distinctively Catholic institution. A collegium that dominantly shares a deep commitment to Catholic teaching would not limit academic freedom, but would rather share an understanding of the right boundaries of the community—just as the faculty of the new “woke” academy do. Of course, there will be disagreements and debates, but such debates would take place within a shared worldview. One can and should also confront viewpoints from outside that collegium, but such perspectives should not be regarded with indifference or placed on equal footing. The priestly class of the new Progressive religion rightly understands that a university inescapably has a predominant belief and worldview; today’s most articulate Catholics, by contrast, seek to erect a shield that would protect people who, we are to believe, possess no preliminary clue about what is true.
Those who would, in particular, promote a robustly Catholic institution should not adopt the weapons of their opponents by mistaking them for shields. Rather, a fully Catholic argument should be made against the injustices, the hypocrisies, the moral decay, the social degradation, the economic depravity, utilitarian reductionism, the anti-human technologism, and the outright viciousness of the current order. We ought make our stand not on the deceptive quicksand of neutrality, but on the solid foundations of truth.
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