Whither Academic Freedom?

Posted on November 9, 2010


St Andrews University

From a guest blogger:

In The Republic, Plato struggled with the question of what relationship the State should have with academia, and settled on the concept of philosopher kings. It is right, thought Plato, that there are some who focus on seeking the truth in all matters. To these should be ordained the right to rule. What could be better than to make the most knowledgeable also the most powerful?

It is impossible to tell whether Plato desired to elucidate a plausible vision of how society should be run or whether he was merely attempting a mental experiment. Nevertheless, the questions he raised are timeless, and confront us in a most pressing manner today.

Professor Kenneth Howell of the University of Illinois was recently at the centre of controversy following an email he sent to students entitled ‘Utilitarianism and Sexuality’, in which he clarified his answers to questions about Catholic teaching on homosexuality. Closer to home, the appointment of Professor Roger Scruton to St. Andrews University in a visiting capacity has caused a stir amongst those who feel his views on homosexuality could create an ‘uncomfortable’ atmosphere.

But how comfortable should a university campus be? And who should determine the level of comfort: the State, or academics themselves?

The civil rights movement in the US was forged outside the law which prevailed at the time and it is from there that it claimed the moral high-ground. It prevailed because it captured hearts and minds. This is the fabric of true human rights: though they may be controversial to some, their worth is proved both within the law, and when the law fails. Yet, contemporary moral discourse on homosexuality affirms the need to accept homosexual rights without discussion, and without a test of principled coherence outside of the law.

Assertions of homosexual rights need to prove themselves against the rigour of academic counter-argument rather than seeking to gain acceptance by censuring those who disagree. Failure to allow this, under the spurious contention that it is ‘homophobic’, would tend to confirm the view that many claims for specific homosexual rights are more a part of contemporary fashion than genuine human rights.

Our society holds to a line very different from that of Plato’s philosopher kings. Whilst Plato envisaged truth and power hand-in-hand, contemporary academia has become the poor man’s hobby horse. The ‘real’ battle for ideas takes place amongst the superficial merry-go-round of sound-bites. The first victim of this battle has been the trivialisation of human rights.

Better than administrative attempts to fire controversial academics are the words of one student of St. Andrews: ‘We look forward to challenging him in debate when he arrives on campus’.

(Photo credit: CC: © Rob Bishop. No endorsement implied.)

Posted in: Education