Notes on Academic Freedom, Intellectual Freedom, and Virtue

Prof. Colin Tyler

Institute of Applied Ethics, University of Hull, UK

28 February 2023


The following paper reflects briefly on the relationships between academic freedom, intellectual freedom, and virtue. The first section distinguishes between intellectual freedom, academic freedom, non-intellectual convictions, and preaching. Section two offers thoughts on the purposes and qualities of universities, academics and students, before the paper concludes by reiterating the continuing need for tolerance, inclusion, civility and sensitivity in academic and intellectual debate.

1. Intellectual freedom, academic freedom, and preaching

Reading and watching some of the disputes about intellectuals’ freedom of thought and expression, you might be forgiven for thinking that current conflicts are particularly virulent or unusual. In fact, you can find very similar disputes throughout history, with Socrates being sentenced to death in ancient Greece, Galileo being convicted by the Roman Inquisition in the seventeenth century, the Oxford fellow Benjamin Jowett (later Master of Balliol College) and others being forced to never publish again on religious questions in the mid-Victorian period following the publication of their heterodox volume Essays and Review. Other examples can be given, more or less dramatic and significant. Nevertheless, the fact that current disputes have precedents and pale by the standards of some previous cases does mean that they are not serious and should not concern us deeply.

In his 1784 essay “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant looked to the institutional context of thought and expression, to draw a vitally important distinction between “intellectual freedom” and “academic freedom.”

* Intellectual freedom: is the freedom to express the positions you have arrived at through your free intellectual enquiry. At its heart are the demands intellectual sincerity and the search for truth through the individual’s use of their own reason.

* Academic freedom: is the freedom that academics qua academics possess to express the results of free intellectual enquiry, in accordance with the demands of their employment by a formally-constituted educational institution (a university, further education college, school, and so on).

To this distinction, one should add a third area of thought and expression. This area ranges from beliefs based on faith to those based on lived experience without deeper reflection and finally to blind prejudice held without serious attempt to question one’s views. This vague collection might be called (rather inelegantly) the expression of non-intellectual convictions.

There is a mode of expression that fits very well with non-intellectual convictions. Yet, it differs markedly from the exercise of both intellectual freedom and academic freedom. This mode does not seek primarily to engage the rational faculties of the audience. Rather, it seeks to bring the audience to share your view through the use of rhetoric, the distortion of perspective, and other appeals to emotion. This third form is characterised most accurately as propaganda, show-boating, or more simply preaching.

Even though these types of freedom and modes of expression blur into one another in many places, at its extreme preaching is the antithesis of academic freedom and especially of intellectual freedom.

Any particular act of speaking or writing in a university is very likely to contain elements of all of the above.

2. The purposes and qualities of universities, academics and students

Clearly, academic freedom is a problematic concept, requiring that academics negotiate the demands of free intellectual enquiry within the context of their employment as academics. After all, we must never forget that academics are academics because they are employed as such. If they were not to be employed in such an institution, then they would be, say, a former academic, or someone aspiring to be an academic, or an intelligent person.

The nature and demands of academic freedom are complicated still further by the fact that their employers do not have a completely free hand in determining the legitimate nature of and limits to academic speech. Irrespective of the wishes of politicians or higher education leaders, universities are institutions that exist to fulfil certain purposes and these purposes are constraints on all of us who work within them.

The primary purposes of every university are (i) the generation (Research) and (ii) dissemination of knowledge and understanding within and beyond the community (Impact and Knowledge Exchange), and (iii) the education of students to become more effective and circumspect citizens and employees (Pedagogy). While obviously universities must generate income in order to survive, they are not businesses. Money is important in a university qua university because – and only to the extent that – it enables its academics to generate and disseminate knowledge and understanding. Neither is a university a church – that is, it is not an institution in which preaching (in the sense I have just indicated) has any legitimate place. To reiterate: the primary purposes of a university are “simply” to produce new knowledge, to educate non-academics and to apply that knowledge in socially-useful ways, and of course to educate students to become more effective and circumspect citizens with socially-valued employment skills.

An indicative implication relates to a central battleground of academic freedom: curriculum design. The requirement to provide one’s students with the knowledge and understanding needed to participate as a professional in the wider community entails that academics teach the cutting-edge of their subject, even if they do not value that cutting-edge in itself. Moreover, they should teach it dispassionately, rather than condemning these topics or texts for “woke,” “exclusionary,” or any other such failing. Obviously, this cutting-edge requirement does not preclude the academic also including texts and topics that better suit their own intellectual positions.

There are significant differences in relation to research, where academics make cases for the positions that their rational reflection leads them to believe to be the most sound. Similarly, impact and knowledge exchange require the academic to make a case and to favour one option over the others, but only after the careful exercise of their professional reason and judgement. Academic freedom in research is shaped in various ways by the institutional context in which the academic is employed. For example, in the UK’s context of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) while employers do not have the professional right to force academics to research specific topics, they can legitimately require academics to seek to produce work that will score well against REF criteria (crudely and contestably referred to as “originality,” “rigour” and “significance”). Yet, they cannot legitimately however require academics to sacrifice their intellectual freedom solely to that goal. Space should always be left for research that goes beyond the confines and ambiguities of servicing the REF.

To achieve these purposes, all forms of academic endeavour rely on key capacities and skills (I am tempted to say virtues of intellectual maturity). These include:

  • The capacity for different forms of critical thinking
  • Certain procedural dispositions, including good time management, reliability, and so on; and the more ephemeral virtues, including
  • Intellectual honesty, including a recognition that simple answers and viewpoints are usually actually highly simplistic answers and viewpoints
  • Tolerance of intellectual diversity
  • Openness to new ideas, based on a consciousness of everyone’s intellectual fallibility
  • Intellectual resilience

3. Tolerance: Inclusion, civility and sensitivity

Working together, universities constitute a crucial element of every liberal democratic society. And as liberal democratic institutions, there are good and legitimate reasons why almost all universities in contemporary liberal democracies operate seek goals of inclusion. Inclusion fosters intellectual diversity and an openness to new ideas. Importantly, it confronts students and academics with viewpoints that previously they have not considered seriously. Inclusion properly conceived forces people to be uncomfortable, to realise that silencing someone is incompatible with the primary purposes of a university.

Universities should bring together diverse viewpoints then. They should challenge their students and academics to develop their academic virtues.

Intellectual maturity is incompatible with preaching. As a precondition of academic freedom, it requires us to enter into serious discussion with others in an educational context. It requires the virtues of tolerance, an acceptance of the fact that some people hold disquieting views, and sometimes those views will be deeply disquieting. It also requires a recognition that it is not merely possible, but necessary to discuss these views.

Civility and sensitivity are vital, because universities are institutions prioritise the need to develop academic virtues. Not everyone currently has the intellectual resilience characteristic of intellectual maturity. But civility is not the same as intellectual acquiescence, nor is it a refusal to engage with a viewpoint you find distasteful. Similarly, academic sensitivity must not cosset students and academics. Hence, academic civility and sensitivity require us to challenge offensive or ill-founded viewpoints, while showing respect for those with whom we disagree.

In this sense, it is vital to remember that universities are important as homes for the development of intellectually assertive, yet civil, adults, who adhere to the difficult and not always coherent principles of academic freedom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s