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In case you missed it, last week an undergraduate at Harvard made an impassioned plea against academic freedom. The author wants to replace academic freedom with a concept that she insists is more “rigorous;” one she dubs “academic justice.” This evidently means that “when an academic community observes research promoting or justifying oppression, it should ensure that this research does not continue.”
Under her preferred regime of “academic justice,” Harvey Mansfield, Richard Herrnstein, and Subramanian Swamy (by specific example; she would doubtless exclude many more professors) would be unwelcome at Harvard, whereas the BDS movement against Israel would “take the moral upper hand.”
While there has been some great criticism written about this article, including by my colleague Peter Bonilla at FIRE, I want to tell you what I love about this article.
First, I love her use of the word “rigorous.” The whole column would make a lot more sense if she substituted the word rigorous for words like “self certain,” “biased and subjective,” “anti-intellectual,” or just “convenient.” It’s always fun when someone uses a word to mean its opposite (e.g. “and by ‘rigorous’ I mean ‘not rigorous.’”)
The second thing I love about this article is that it has a kind of wide-eyed honesty about it. While, in my experience, some academics would like to have unquestioned dogma on many topics, they at least intellectually understand why academic freedom is important, even if only as a means of self-preservation. After all, many academics have been around long enough to see how dramatically the campus culture can turn against a set of ideas, so they at least want academic freedom as sort of a long-term life preserver. That being said, however, many of the same academics can be apathetic-to-indifferent about whether or not those principles get applied to, say, their peers who might run afoul of academic groupthink. And then, perhaps learning from this attitude at Harvard, we see a student just come right out and say “Hey, I’ve got an idea: why don’t we just have academic freedom for points of view that comport with our political agenda, and just get rid of everything else?” Refreshingly honest and scary all at the same time.
(What makes this even more interesting is that despite being at such an elite institution, she doesn’t seem to understand that this is a VERY old idea, and it often doesn’t end very well. Do they teach anything about Socrates, Galileo, or Lysenko at Harvard?)
Finally, I’m thankful for this article because within the FIRE office we often talk about the phenomena of “unlearning liberty.” (I may have had something to do with that!) When we talk about students “unlearning liberty” we generally mean students internalizing the lessons they have learned from administrators and, sadly, some professors, and learning to think like censors. Here, a student has proudly demonstrated in The Harvard Crimson that for a certain subset of students, wanting to do away with an open-ended, epistemologically humble, and truly rigorous system for inching away from falsity is not some dirty little secret. Instead, it’s considered a virtue that one should shout to the mountaintops. I owe thanks to the student and to the Crimson for helping me to explain what unlearning liberty looks like.