Thursday, February 22, 2024
Academic freedom is not about the clash of ideologies
Universities, research centers and other knowledge-producing institutions are entrusted with the task of thinking on behalf of society. Their job is to ensure that the ideas we use are the best ones available.

An unintended side-effect of the war unleashed by the Israeli state in Palestine is the revelation of the limits of the idea of academic freedom in its own birthplace, the modern West. The credibility of this idea is in tatters today as protests against the war in American universities provoke threats from donors, alumni and administrators; and as European governments pass laws to defund and punish any academic or artistic activities that question the state of Israel. Of course, the authorities in India that is Bharat have stood shoulder to shoulder with their Western counterparts, pre-empting protests, banning film shows, cancelling talks and demanding apologies from speakers who dare to present any views other than those of the Israeli state.

But despite the global attention it is now receiving, academic freedom remains a much misunderstood idea. Each of its two words misleads in its own way. “Academic” suggests something obscure and impractical, far removed from the everyday world. “Freedom” implies the ability to act exactly as one pleases in the absence of any constraints. To the aam aadmi, the whole thing seems to be yet another perk that already pampered professors are demanding, and that too “for free”. This is a pity, because it is very far from the truth.

Academic freedom is an idea that many people laud without defining its meaning or understanding its implications. As Philip Altbach has observed, “while it seems a simple concept and in essence is, academic freedom is also difficult to define.”

The result is that, all too often, how one defines academic freedom can seem like a social construction based on one’s understanding. There has long been discussion in the United States, for example, about how to define academic freedom at a religious institution that holds fast to conservative tenets based on Biblical understandings. Assume an institution’s religious doctrine views creationism as a competing or superior interpretation to evolution. Does a professor have the freedom to reject such a belief in his or her classroom and focus only on evolution? If an institution subscribes to a particular interpretation of how women or gays and lesbians should be viewed, what might the institution’s beliefs portend for those campus groups who wish to speak and write in a manner that challenges those

beliefs? And, of course, a dialogue and debate is ongoing about whether one has the academic freedom to make a particular statement about a particular group if such comments might be defined as hate speech or patently false. Although individuals, groups, and institutions may have answers to such questions, others will have alternative interpretations. Hence Academic freedom is not about the clash of ideologies, it is the duty of academics to speak truth to power.
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