Mitch Daniels vs. Howard Zinn. Daniels Wins.

It’s worth pausing over Wood’s observation about academic freedom.  First, note that free speech — the right to peaceful political dissent — is not the same thing as academic freedom — the more limited right to pursue, teach, and publish about the truth. This is a distinction that is often elided. As the sociologist Edward Shils wrote in an important essay on the subject, academic freedom is “the freedom to seek and transmit the truth.” It does not, he noted, “extend to the conduct of political propaganda in teaching.”

Academic freedom is the freedom of university teachers to perform their academic obligations of teaching and research. These are obligations to seek and communicate the truth according to “their best lights.” Academic freedom is not the freedom of academic individuals to do just anything, to follow any impulse or desire, or to say anything that occurs to them. It is the freedom to do academic things: to teach the truth as they see it on the basis of prolonged and intensive study, to discuss their ideas freely with their colleagues, to publish the truth as they have arrived at it by systematic methodical research and assiduous research.

“That,” Shils concludes, “is academic freedom proper.” A number of corollaries follow. One is that one assess academic things according to academic or intellectual criteria, “regardless of the person’s political or religious beliefs, his or her sex, ethnic origin, personal qualities, kinship connections, friendship or enmity toward the individual or the work assessed.” It also follows that academic freedom is limited in certain ways. For example, “An academic is not free to falsify the record of his observations; he is not free to forge or misrepresent the contents of documents and inscriptions.” Shils also goes on to argue that although “academic freedom includes political freedom,” it is nonetheless “desirable that teachers should not expound their own political or moral preferences and values in their classes,” and, if they do, that “they should take care to distinguish evaluative judgments from their statements of fact.”

The distinction between free speech and the more limited privilege of academic freedom is not novel. But it is one that many well-meaning people have difficulty wrapping their minds around.  Our society provides many outlets for the expression of political opinions. Thank God for that. It has also taken care to provide for educational institutions whose purpose is learning, scholarship, and pedagogy.  Academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. It is a more limited freedom, designed to nurture intellectual integrity and to protect those engaged in intellectual inquiry from the intrusion of partisan passions. The very limitation of academic freedom is part of its strength. By excluding the political, it makes room for the pursuit of truth.

This is a point that is articulated well by the late Kenneth Minogue in his book The Concept of the University.

Universities were based, like all social institutions, on something valued—on a “value judgment,” to use the current jargon. They were based (if I may use an old formula) on “the disinterested pursuit of truth.” It was this pursuit, as it were, that constituted the moral basis of their authority. They had no direct concern with justice, and no one was ever sent to a university to make him courageous. Their excellence was to be found in their limits. Academia dealt in the virtues of truth and exactitude.

What happened? In the 1960s, universities collapsed “in the face of a little juvenile swagger.” They never recovered, most of them, and we continue to reap the fruits of that moral and intellectual dégringolade. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude to those (alas, few) public figures who, like Mitch Daniels, have both the wit and the courage to buck the PC-tide and stand up for truth amidst the mephitic currents of left-wing propaganda purveyed by ideologues like Howard Zinn.