Why Academic Freedom Trumps Social Justice

The fight for the soul of the American university.

Last year, undergraduate Sandra Korn initiated a furor when she authored an article for the Harvard Crimson newspaper arguing that academic freedom should be discarded in favor of social justice. Citing the example of Richard Herrnstein's research on racial differences in intelligence, Korn posed the question:  "if our university community opposes racism, sexism, and heterosexism, why should we put up with research that counters our goals simply in the name of 'academic freedom'"?

Why, indeed. One reason might be that the entire concept of social justice is hopelessly ambiguous. As early as the fifth century BC, Greek philosophers demonstrated that any attempt to define abstract moral quantities such as justice, truth, or courage was doomed from the outset. Plato's most famous work, The Republic, is devoted to an exploration of the nature of justice. The conclusion is that everyone defines justice to be what he perceives to be in his own self-interest. The standard of "justice" is no standard at all, because it has no objective existence. To declare that one is for "justice" is nothing more than an assertion than one is for oneself.

Ms. Korn is hardly the first person to make an argument against toleration. Her views were anticipated in the fifth century by that most influential of the Christian Fathers, Augustine of Hippo. In a letter to a colleague, Augustine confessed that he had once made the mistake of embracing toleration. But experience had taught him the folly of tolerating heretics and eschewing coercion. "The thing to be considered when anyone is coerced," Augustine explained, "is not the mere fact of the coercion, but the nature of that to which he is coerced, whether it be good or bad." If someone had truth on their side, persecution was entirely justified. Like Ms. Korn, Augustine was one of those exceptional individuals blessed with an infallible talent for discerning right from wrong.

Let us concede the logic of the argument. If a viewpoint is entirely wrong and bad it ought to be suppressed. Why should we have academic freedom if it allows not only the good to flourish, but also the pernicious and wicked? Why not, as Korn advocated, simply adopt a policy of promoting what is good, just, and righteous? The answer is that twenty-five hundred years of experience in Western Civilization have taught us that it's impossible to differentiate between right and wrong in an absolute and objective manner.

The roots of academic freedom are in the principle of toleration. Modern toleration began among the Protestant sects in northern Europe. Initially, the Protestants were as intolerant of each other as they were of Catholics. Calvin arranged to have Servetus burned alive because they disagreed over doctrine. Only gradually did Protestants began to acquire an appreciation for the futility of persecution. Pleading for toleration, John Locke pointed out that doctrinal differences would never be resolved. Every sect regarded its theology as inerrant and orthodox. No judge on Earth was capable of unraveling these disputes.

The father of toleration was Pierre Bayle, an exiled Huguenot residing in Holland. Bayle argued that the virtue of toleration was apparent in the light of human reason. It was foolish to try and change a man's conscience through force. "Attacking errors with a cudgel" was as absurd as assailing "bastions with syllogism and harangue." Bayle derived his principle of toleration from the Greek skeptics of the fourth century BC. The skeptics taught that it was impossible to establish any proposition with certainty. Even skepticism itself was to be doubted. The only rationale position to take was a complete suspension of judgment. When a person is robbed of their righteous conviction, persecution becomes impossible.

It is not so easy to determine what is true. Even a casual perusal of history teaches us that the record of the human race is one of error piled upon error. For thousands of years, physicians attributed disease to an imbalance of vital humours and attempted cures through bloodletting. Aristotle's physics maintained that heavy objects fall faster than light ones. Galileo was persecuted for advocating heliocentrism. Ideas once considered absolutely true were later shown to be absolutely false.

Not only have the answers changed, the questions have also evolved. Nine hundred years ago the Western intellectual world was preoccupied with the problem of universals. Nominalists and realists engaged in ferocious debates as to whether or not beauty was present in a flower in reality or name only. The entire controversy, once considered profound by the greatest minds of the age, now appears to be nothing more than a futile logomachy. Centuries of intellectual jousting have instilled in us an appreciation for the limits of knowledge and wisdom. It's easy to assess the extent of our limited knowledge, more difficult to plumb the depths of our ignorance. The only demonstrated constants in human history are folly and vanity.

There's nothing very unusual about Sandra Korn's embracement of intolerance. Intolerance is the normal human condition because it is rooted in ignorance. Only a person with limited exposure to different ideas can be sure they're absolutely right. We educate to eradicate intolerance. A person can not engage in the slightest study of human experience without immediately deriving an appreciation for the fact that people living in different times and places have very different ideas. It is this exposure to different thoughts that begins to undermine our own surety and make us more open-minded and tolerant.

It is concerning that a plea for intolerance comes from the most august of our institutions of higher education. How did this happen? American universities have become politicized. In recent decades we have witnessed the rise of "studies" departments in our colleges that are not so much devoted to inquiry as to the promulgation of ideologies. We now have the spectacle of a professor at the University of Iowa suspended, in part, because she suggested to her students that low retention rates for African-American students could be attributed to poor grades. The students, en masse, declared this idea to be "academically irresponsible, morally abhorrent, and patently untrue." Instead of rebutting the argument, they demanded that their professor be removed from the class.

It is distressing that more institutions have not chosen to emulate the University of Chicago, an institution that has long been preeminent in its dedication to free speech and inquiry. In 1967, the Kalven Report noted that it was inherent in the very mission and design of a university to create discontent. More recently, Chicago reaffirmed its commitment to academic freedom by noting that it was improper for their administration to "shield individuals from ideas and opinions they find unwelcome, disagreeable, or even deeply offensive." These statements of principle ought to be self-evident in any academic or intellectual community. Unfortunately, the University of Chicago is an exception in a sea of indifference. Faculty are largely apathetic, and administrators find appeasement to be more expedient than explanation and defense. This is a crisis of identity. If American universities do not understand their proper function and role they will undergo an ugly transformation into second-rate political associations.