Rethinking Academic Freedom

IWMPost Article

Today’s democratic decline has been accompanied by an erosion of academic freedom. But what is the relation between academic freedom and political freedom more generally? Is academic freedom limited to the privileges of a select few? Or does it have a connection to the survival and renewal of liberal democracy in a time of rising authoritarianism?

Is there any doubt that liberal democracy is today in decline? The symptoms seem to be everywhere: open disregard for the rule of law, marked decreases in competitive elections, rejection of pluralism and tolerance, growing civil conflict, deadlocked legislatures, and brutal assaults against the postwar international order. 

Faced with such anomie and stasis, one can understand why so many have embraced authoritarianism’s false promises. In contrast to freely elected liberal democratic leaders, authoritarians seem to personify stability, not to mention a reassuring capacity to withstand crises (many of which they strategically manufacture in the first place). Once assumed to be a thing of the past, authoritarianism’s pretense of durability now makes it seem like a credible safeguard against a foreboding future.

This problem is linked in a counterintuitive way to a more subtle sign of the times: the erosion of academic freedom now unfolding throughout the world, nowhere more acutely than in Hungary’s 2018 expulsion of the esteemed Central European University.

No liberal democracy can survive without protecting scholars’ freedom to teach, research, and publish without persecution from authorities. But to understand why this is uniquely true today, and also to grasp how academic freedom implies a surprising response to the problem of contemporary authoritarianism, we first need to acknowledge tensions and paradoxes internal to the history and theory of academic freedom.

The most scandalous is this: academic freedom has little in common with specifically democratic freedoms. It is enjoyed not by the many but by a few. It resides in institutions governed less by equality than hierarchy, less by election than selection. Far from synonymous with the liberty to express one’s opinion, it involves an obligation—separating the true from the false—often at odds with that liberty. Its principle is that some claims—true ones—are more desirable than others, even if they should offend the majority of the public. 

This tension is as old as democracy and the academy. The first academy was founded by Plato in the wake of the first democracy’s execution of the first philosopher, Socrates. From the beginning, the academy was less an ally for democracy than a belated defense against it.

With the birth of the university, academic freedom assumed an even more paradoxical form. Starting in the eleventh century, popes and emperors began granting exemptions, protections, and privileges to intergenerational guilds of teachers and learners, who thereby obtained the right to call themselves a universitas. Their studies were shaped by a clear purpose: the idea that the Catholic Church’s highest law is the salvation of souls. 

From this purpose there flowed an unusual form of legal autonomy. To the extent that the truth of salvation was specifically Catholic in character, the medieval university’s pursuit of this truth also assumed an aspirationally universal form. (Katholikos, in Greek, originally meant “universal.”) The medieval university was open to students from throughout the known world, regardless of birthplace, ethnicity, or language. Medieval masters were also granted a “right to teach anywhere,” and they exercised it to travel freely between universities and regions. As a last resort, universities could preserve their academic freedom through the right of secession and relocation: if persecuted by a local prince or polity, they could move elsewhere. (The first recorded mention of libertas scholastica, which appears in the Papal Bull of 1220, occurs in this context.) 

This does not mean that the medieval university was a bastion of academic freedom. The same legal autonomy that freed it from external control also gave it the internal authority to prevent and punish heresies by means of inquisition, expulsion, and even execution. In the medieval university, the forces of religious orthodoxy all too often clipped the wings of the Owl of Minerva. But this coexisted with a form of academic freedom backed by a specifically supranational authority—something, as we know, that is conspicuously missing today. 

With the crisis of the medieval order, the university was altered almost beyond recognition. Revelation was displaced by reason, religion by science, and timeless traditions by new empirical truths.

These shifts all helped to free the search for truth from religious orthodoxy. But, decisively, the secularization of the university was simultaneously also its regionalization. No longer protected by the sweeping authority of popes and emperors, universities were now newly dependent upon sovereign nation-states, whose highest law was their own populations’ security, health, wealth, and welfare. At the very moment when universities acquired a new freedom to pursue nontheological forms of universal truths, they lost the sacerdotal and imperial supports that had protected their aspirations to universality in practice. The secularization process that allowed for a novel form of academic freedom thus caged it in a novel way too. Some might assume that academic freedom began with the onset of modernity. But it might be more accurate to say that academic freedom survived despite it.

In all of these ways and more, academic freedom remains curiously foreign to contemporary liberal democracies. But we should acknowledge this fact, not resist it, for it discloses an unexpected teaching about why liberal democracies need to keep academic freedom alive in the untimely institutions they host and hold within their borders.

Today more than ever, liberal democracies suffer from a limited capacity to imagine and execute plans over the longue durée. Our politicians think in terms of election cycles, our corporations think in terms of quarterly earnings, and we citizens do our best to try to absorb the ceaseless shocks brought by the daily news. All of this short-term thinking leaves our polities exposed not only to the unpredictability, inconsistency, and precarity we are currently experiencing, but also—in the case of long-term crises like climate change—to paralysis, despair, and learned helplessness.

At their best, by contrast, our universities provide what our polities lack: the ability to think in terms of expansive intergenerational continuities. Beginning at least with the medieval universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the pursuit of truth always has involved the creation of bonds between old and young, between distant pasts and uncertain futures. Whatever other more concrete forms academic freedom may assume, this is its abiding purpose even and especially today: to maintain the renewal of this bond, to ensure that truth remains its content and freedom its form, and to keep watch over its possibility in perpetuity. 

Understood in this way, academic freedom is not at all limited to academia. It is a living reminder to us all that freedom and truth can sustain communities capable of withstanding epochal crises and achieving stability over vast swathes of time. Liberal democracies that incorporate it into their bodies politic certainly do perform an important public service, for without academic freedom higher education lapses into mere indoctrination. But they also silently accomplish a deeper and more enduring good as well: they immunize themselves against the authoritarian lie that truth and freedom are threats to the attainment of lasting order. 

Academic freedom may be no more native to liberal democracy than canaries are to caves. But if what is past is prologue, liberal democracies that keep academic freedom alive will likely themselves live long. And those that today feel short of breath? They too know where to look to learn if they should be alarmed.

Adam Sitze is the John E. Kirkpatrick 1951 Professor in Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought at Amherst College, in Amherst, Massachusetts. In 2022 he was a Visiting Fellow at the IWM.