What is Academic Freedom?

Published on 3rd April 2007

Is academic freedom an ideal subsisting in the realm of the abstract, or a practicable purpose demonstrable in action? Ascribing it to both an ideal and attainable purpose raises a paradox of thought and articulation.

As an ideal, academic freedom would be thought of as limitless and transcendent. Ideals are not subject to boundaries as they subsist in the realm of the abstract. Ideals are best seen as design states -always in a state of development. As an ideal, academic freedom is by definition, a notion or impression existing only in the mind indicating the direction of action but never attaining the action itself.

Rousseau observes that “all men are born free but everywhere in chains”, meaning that we are free only to the extent that our freedom does not interfere with the freedom of others. It is often this tail-end (the bounds of freedom) that is often overlooked. People tend to look to their own freedoms and not to the freedoms of others or to the effects of their freedoms on the freedoms of others. Many people in the conduct of their affairs, academic or otherwise, to espouse the Machiavellian position that one’s possessions “ought to be defended whether with shame or glory, by whatever means possible”.

On the other hand, academic freedom can also be seen as concrete manifestation of desired action. Where academic freedom is thought to be attainable, there arises a question of identifying its properties that may not be faulted if the full and complete essence of the concept is to be understood. This entails introducing trail marks about academic freedom being attainable, and defining instances of what form, content, or action would denote its presence or absence in all circumstances. Since society is constituted in many varied (some polarised) philosophical and ideological persuasions competing for pre-eminence, the academic may yet have to declare which among the many and polarised interests (social, cultural or political) they serve or ought to serve.

Reference to academic freedom should indicate whether we are referring to the rights, needs and obligations of individual academics, or collectivised persons. Even so, the academic person does not always come out as a universal embodiment of the academic enterprise they stand for. There may arise circumstances where individual academics may have to make choices that align them against each other over certain issues.

For logical and expedient reasons, the definition of academic freedom may become reducible to an agreement to differ and to hold different and opposing views and opinions. This is not a problem except when we want one view from the polarised camps to be a determinant of policy that would bind all interest groups and stakeholders in the social collective.

We can’t ignore the fact that academics as individuals have their own minds, views, opinions, and convictions that may differ with those of their colleagues or society. A major task then would be to compromise the different views and philosophical inclinations into a common social and political purpose that would serve the public interest. Borrowing from gestalt psychology that the whole cannot be equal to the sum of its parts (Vygotsky, 1978), we learn that a compromise view of academic freedom cannot give us the nature of academic freedom in itself -its form, content, and essence.

Academic freedom: whose freedom?

What is the academic’s professional duty and responsibility and when do these complement or depart from the academic’s individual interests? To whom is he/she responsible? Do academics owe their duty and responsibility to the people, as collective citizens who have consented to what the philosopher John Locke in his Second Treatise on Government referred to as a “commonwealth” where “the will of the majority [must conclude] for all?” Or do academics owe their duty solely to their professional institution -the guild?

Individuals indeed need to be free to express their “selfness” in their relations with others, especially with those within and across their disciplines of interest. Individuals’ freedoms are proscribed to the twilight which separates needs from excesses. Society has statutes which seek to regulate social relationships and define freedoms and the extent to which they may be exercised in the interests of an orderly and efficient conduct of the general social relations of existence.

However, the freedom of the individual is different from the freedom of the guild. In referring to academic freedom we are therefore referring to the freedoms (and rights) of individuals first, and, as members of the guild second. The guild itself may not have freedoms or rights since whatever is ascribed to it derives from and feeds back to the needs and interests of the individuals. Individuals claim and exercise rights and freedoms for themselves either as individuals or as a collective organized around their special needs, interests, and aspirations.


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