Academic Freedom

by David Crabtree

This article is excerpted from a much longer paper, entitled “Academic Freedom and Fundamentalism,” that David wrote for McKenzie Study Center’s Oktoberfuss 2002: Fundamentalism in Perspective.


Gutenberg College, now in its ninth year of operation, is in the process of trying to gain accreditation for its undergraduate liberal arts program. As part of the process, the accrediting association sends a team of people to observe and to critique every aspect of the applying institution’s operations. In May, a team came to Gutenberg for a three-day site visit. The visitors talked to faculty, administrators, and students, visited classes, and examined our records. At the end of the visit, they drafted a report listing their observations. …Most of the comments were more or less what we had expected. One observation, however, was shocking—they questioned whether academic freedom is adequately safeguarded at Gutenberg College.

Their stated concern had to do with our Statement of Method. We require that all of our faculty sign a statement that states that truth exists and that it can be rationally discerned. It further states that we accept the Bible to be inerrant and a faithful guide to rationally discerning truth, provided it is interpreted according to the principles of normal human communication. In discussion with us, [the site-visitation team] learned that recovering the author’s intended meaning is our goal not only when we are interpreting the Bible, but we believe this principle equally applies to all of the works we read in the curriculum. They thought this approach to interpretation overly restrictive. …The constant and uniform insistence from each faculty member that students determine the intended meaning of the author means that students are exposed to and trained in only one interpretive method, and this essentially prohibits the student from making an independent decision on this important issue.

One of the reasons that new colleges such as Gutenberg are coming into existence is because of the oppressive pressures of academic conformity that permeate most of our nation’s college campuses. [Gutenberg College has] been designed to encourage students to think carefully about their Christian faith and to pursue the truth boldly. So we are faced with a very strange phenomenon. Where I see academic freedom, most academics see suppression of thought. Where I see suppression of thought, they see academic freedom. How can this be? This is the issue I want to explore.

Brief History of Academic Freedom

The issue of academic freedom is of recent provenance, but the concept has ancient precedents, dating back to classical Greek times. … The concept has evolved over time, [and] it has also changed in fundamental conception. In order to understand how the concept has changed, let us briefly review some of the key moments.

The first noteworthy incident of academic freedom occurred in classical Greek times. It was the trial of the philosopher Socrates [who was] tried by his fellow citizens for two charges—not worshiping the gods of Athens and corrupting the youth. … Socrates was trying to waken the people of Athens from their intellectual and moral complacency [by asking public questions, and he] created enemies for himself among the most powerful men in the city. For Socrates this pursuit of Truth was a divinely ordained mission, a calling. He could not allow any person or human institution to deter him from carrying out this responsibility. So committed was he to this mission, that he was willing to die rather than abandon it.

After Socrates’ death, one of his disciples, Plato, established the Academy—a school from which we get the modern term. In keeping with the tradition of Socrates, this school was devoted to training students in wisdom. It is important to note that the Academy was not a state institution, and it was not founded with the purpose of serving society. It did benefit society, but this was not its raison d’être; any benefits it brought to society were by-products. Its purpose was the pursuit of truth. Having been sobered by their experience with Socrates, the secular powers did not interfere with the Academy in its fulfillment of this higher purpose. So in is earliest manifestation academic freedom was rooted in the belief that the pursuit of truth was a calling, which transcended the reach of any earthly authority.

We will skip forward in history to the Medieval Period, when the first universities were founded. Modern historical accounts … find considerable academic freedom [in the Medieval Period], some even find the freedom exemplary. … That freedom arose out of a Christian worldview. The academics in the medieval universities believed that they were charged with the God-given task of searching out and teaching truth. And the surrounding culture believed this to be true as well. Just as in Plato’s Academy, academic freedom was rooted in the belief that academics were carrying out a mission that transcended the authority of any man or human institution to countermand. … Since academics were charged with such a sacred duty, secular and even religious powers were very reluctant to meddle in the affairs of the universities and granted them considerable freedom in their internal affairs. … It was well understood that the performance of a God-given mandate took precedence over any decree issued by a king.

Being an heir of the Christian tradition, early American society did not challenge the Academy’s claim to academic freedom. Most of the colleges in the United States before the Civil War were sectarian. Their primary raison d’être was to prepare the youth for the Christianization of the continent. … At this time academic freedom was generally seen as the right of an institution to be free from outside interference and a guarantee of each institution’s ability to pursue truth as it saw fit. It was in no way understood to grant the individual teacher license to teach whatever he wanted to teach.

The issue of academic freedom first became a matter of passionate debate at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. … To understand why, one needs to understand the broader context. After the Civil War, there was a societal consensus that something was fundamentally wrong with American culture … that only some deep-seated malady could account for the massively self-destructive carnage they had just experienced. Furthermore, the war demonstrated that the way of the future was in the direction of industrialization—only industrialized societies would be able to survive. So after the Civil War, the leading lights of education reached the conclusion that education in America had become outmoded and needed to change in response to the changing times. In particular they felt education must bear the responsibility of equipping students to become the “captains of industry.” The result of this change in perspective was a major transformation of America’s universities and colleges. …

American educators were attracted to the German university system as a model for change. Germans had long been among the foremost scholars in the world. They had been particularly influential in philosophy and the theoretical sciences. … Under Prussian leadership, Germany had made a meteoric rise in the middle of the nineteenth century. In order to produce this rapid change, Germany adopted a philosophy of society in which everything in society was seen as being in the service of the state and an aid to its development. Accordingly, education was enlisted in the effort to serve the interests of society. … The key to the development of society was seen to be the development of science and a scientifically literate populace. Education was made compulsory, and the system of education that emerged in Germany placed a huge emphasis on scientific training and research. In practice this meant that German professors became more specialized, spending less time mastering material outside their field and spending more time doing independent research in an attempt to acquire new knowledge. They were no longer teachers. They were teacher/researchers—a concept with which we are all familiar. … The German university’s emphasis on science, research, and discovery were very appealing to forward-looking [American] educators as well as industrialists, who were increasingly important financial supporters of universities. …

This transition marked a fundamental change in the mission of the university. The university became much more practically oriented and much more secular. Of particular importance in this regard was the institution of the land grant colleges in 1862. These colleges were established in every state for the expressed purpose of providing training in science and agriculture to the people of that state. This vastly increased the number of colleges in the United States in a relatively short period of time. As a result, the overwhelming predominance of religiously based colleges began to be reversed and the predominant understanding of the purpose of education changed. Universities no longer saw their mission as preparing students to stand before God at judgment day. They were now preparing students to become useful and functioning members of society. From this point on, university education in America took on a this-worldly cast of mind that fit well with the growing influence of modernism. …

After the Civil War, American intellectuals found themselves much more sympathetic with secular modernist perspectives as a whole. American society as a whole began to undergo a noticeable change that was more easily felt than seen. It was a change in mood or attitude. And it was a change away from many of the Protestant values that had characterized earlier generations of Americans. … Not fully aware of the nature of the modernist threat, fundamentalists lashed out at what they perceived as modernist inroads into American culture. One of their areas of concern was the universities. When professors used their prestige and positions to advocate perspectives that ran counter to their Protestant beliefs, fundamentalists often objected. With their newfound freedom and with a growing confidence in public support for a secular perspective, professors were bolder to advance such views. Furthermore, with a more secular outlook these professors felt compelled to enter into political and social issues, because there was nothing of greater moment. The result was an increase in the incidence of conflict and, finally, national concern about the issue of academic freedom. …

The transformation of the American universities entailed a change in the mission of universities and the role of professors. In medieval universities, academics had a calling. They had the God-given task of pursuing and teaching the Truth. In the new university there is no longer a basis for the notion of a calling. Teaching is a profession. And as a profession it is to be treated as any other profession. Unionization, tenure, collective bargaining all begin to make sense. Professors are no longer servants of God and Truth; they are servants of mankind. …

This is a very significant change in the conception of the university, and it has very significant implications for the concept of academic freedom. In the older concept, academic freedom originated from the fact that educators were pursuing a mission that came down from on high. This divine sanction kept it sacrosanct from interference by any human power. In the newer conception, God and truth are conspicuously absent. This erasure means that there is no divine sanction, only the sanction of society for service done on its behalf. Sanction that society grants, society can take away. So the traditional grounds for academic freedom have been eroded away entirely. …

Safeguard of Academic Freedom

The site-visitation team claimed that academic freedom was not adequately safeguarded at Gutenberg College. Their fears were aroused by the fact that our faculty all adhere to the same method of interpretation of texts. They suggested that a variety of perspectives among the members of the faculty is an adequate—and the typical—means of assuring the students’ academic freedom. This understanding that insists on a pluralistic faculty in order to present a variety of perspectives on a whole range of issues, is historically unprecedented and very modern. …

In his dialog Laws, Plato argues that fear of God will constrain the actions of even the lawless. In the absence of a fear of God, human laws are the next best thing. But where there is genuine fear of God, laws are superfluous at best. It is no accident that academic freedom was greatest when the mission of education was most unambiguously acknowledged to be first and foremost in service of God. Wherever this continues to be the mission of education, academic freedom is most likely to be secure. Where the mission of education retains no sound basis on which the principle of academic freedom can be built, that freedom will always be precarious.

For genuine believers truth is sacred. Our response to truth determines our response to God, and our response to God determines our eternal destiny. To treat truth lightly is to take God lightly, and to take God lightly is to take truth lightly. Thus coming to know the truth is ultimately a spiritual struggle more than an intellectual one. Truth is not simply a set of propositions to be memorized. It is, at its heart, an understanding of who we are as human beings and who God is. It is an understanding to which we are by nature resistant. Coming to know the truth means freely deciding to bow our hearts to this reality. The decision to embrace the truth in this fashion happens only by the grace of God.

This understanding of truth has significant implications for anyone who attempts to teach truth to others. A teacher is, to a very large extent, a spectator to the process of learning. To try to manipulate or coerce the student into acceptance of the truth is an act of disrespect and a violation of his personhood. The teacher can gently and patiently try to point the student in the proper direction, but the student must decide where he will go. A faculty that truly understands that this is the nature of truth will not violate the student’s freedom to freely form his own beliefs. To do so would be to disrespect the God who is there.

Ultimately the only sure safeguard of academic freedom is an ethos in which everyone has genuine respect for the truth and for one another. To try to secure it by any other means is futile.

Copyright December 2002 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.

David Crabtree