The Past and Future of Academic Freedom in Higher Education

Professor Geoffrey Stone, the primary author of the University of Chicago statement on freedom of expression, gives a wonderful synopsis of the history of academic freedom in higher education in a Chronicle of Higher Education article published this week.

A History of Academic Freedom in Higher Education

Professor Stone reminds us that free speech and academic freedom were neither “practiced nor professed in American universities” during the 19th century, which was instead a time of “doctrinal moralism” in which “the worth of an idea must be judged by what the institution’s leaders considered its moral value.”

Notions of academic freedom only began to develop during the 1870s, when, ”for the first time, to criticize as well as to preserve traditional moral values and understandings became an accepted function of higher education.” Stone argues that universities may now be on their way to returning to an age of restricted speech in which the moral understandings of administrators will be the deciding factor in what faculty and students are allowed to express.

Academic Freedom Going Forward

Bearing this history in mind, Stone issues this call to action to universities:

Universities must educate our students to understand that academic freedom is not a law of nature. It is not something to be taken for granted. It is, rather, a hard-won acquisition in a lengthy struggle for academic integrity.

He writes further:

A university should encourage disagreement, argument, and debate. It should instill in its students and faculty members the importance of winning the day by facts, by ideas, and by persuasion, rather than by force, obstruction, or censorship. For a university to fulfill its most fundamental mission, it must be a safe space for even the most loathsome, odious, offensive, disloyal arguments. Students should be encouraged to be tough, fearless, rigorous, and effective advocates and critics.

The rest of this excellent article is worth reading: Free Expression in Peril