At the Huffington Post, psychologist David Moshman reviews two new books on academic freedom: Unsafe Space, and Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (I have not read either). Reflecting on these books, Moshman, an emeritus professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who describes himself as an “intellectual freedom activist,” notes that the idea of intellectual freedom is based on a recognition that there’s such a thing as objective truth. Of course, the same is true of good science.
In traditional universities, knowledge was truth, a simple matter of objectivity. Historically this was mostly the received wisdom of religious, cultural, and philosophical tradition. By the late 19th century, however, and through the middle of the 20th, knowledge was taken to be the accumulating results of research in scientific and other disciplines using methods that were deemed to expose the truth.
Academic freedom in this conception is the freedom of professors to seek the truth using the rigorous methods of their professional disciplines, their freedom to profess their hard-won truths without fear of penalty, and the free access of students to what professors have to teach. Institutionally, it is the freedom of the university to be a special place guided by a commitment to truth.
Since the 1960s, however, the objectivist conception of knowledge as truth has increasingly been replaced by a subjectivist conception of knowledge in which we each have our own truths. The views of students, in a radically subjectivist conception of knowledge, are all equally worthy, and no less worthy than those of their professors.
Radical subjectivism leads to a shallow conception of academic freedom in which, lacking an objective basis for comparing or challenging ideas, we simply support the freedom of all to express themselves. In the absence of any basis for critique, moreover, serious criticism of the views of others shows a lack of respect. So perhaps academic freedom only protects us as long as we don’t offend others, especially others whose voices have traditionally been silenced.
Moshman takes this further, advocating a blend of the objective and the subjective as a lens for viewing academic freedom. Ultimate truth, he thinks, cannot be reached but “remains the guiding ideal,” pursued asymptotically. I disagree. While there are a few areas in which knowledge is subjective, my own study and reflection convince me that on the whole, truth (or a close approximation) is attainable. At the very least, we should be able to falsify ideas.
That’s especially so in the natural sciences. Moshman mentions that “[b]y the late 19th century, …and through the middle of the 20th, knowledge was taken to be the accumulating results of research in scientific and other disciplines using methods that were deemed to expose the truth.” This is still the way that scientific knowledge is gained. Science advances by disproving claims and using inductive reasoning. Without proving a proposition, it can nevertheless hold hypotheses with increasing confidence.
Yet Moshman’s article is insightful and may partly explain the threat to academic freedom that we see in the study of evolution and intelligent design. At institutions that have lost their commitment to academic freedom, you also find a waning belief in objective truth. ID advocates and evolution skeptics are thus doubly bombarded as the university and the scientific community enforce an orthodoxy on evolution.
Both academic freedom and good science assume a commitment to objective reality. When this is rejected in favor of political correctness, scholars are persecuted and the advancement of knowledge suffers. How long will it be before someone demands that even the mildest mainstream criticism of Darwinian theory be accompanied by a trigger warning?