Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Academic Freedom: Who Needs It?" Event on Campus

The Wisconsin Association of Scholars is bringing a speaker to campus on Thursday. That's February 28, 7:00-9:00 pm, Red Gym -- On Wisconsin C, here at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. The event is free and open to the public.

Professor Richard T. De George is speaking on a subject dear to my heart: academic freedom. When we recently asked him what position he will take in his talk, he had this to say:
Universities can and have existed without academic freedom. But academic freedom, together with freedom of speech (with which it is often confused), are important to a free, democratic, open society. Academic freedom is ultimately justified by the benefits it confers on such a society. It s compatible with accountability, and should be defended from current attacks against it both from within and without academe.
This is essentially a utilitarian defense of academic freedom. You might think that, because I am no utilitarian, I won't agree with this. But actually I think that this is far from being an unreasonable position. Different rights have different bases, and not all rights are natural rights. You have a right to free speech (according to me and John Locke) just because you are a human being. Academic freedom is not like this.

Academic freedom, very roughly, is a right to carry on teaching and research without constraints on the results I am allowed to produce. You could consider it a speech right, but unlike the right of free speech it is a right to express one's views using specific resources. My right of free speech is not a right to say what I want in your living room, or on your web site -- or in my employer's place of business.

Academic freedom is a constitutive part of a certain sort of job. It makes my job very different from other jobs. Firefighters, priests, and marketing directors do not have a right to come to work and say what they jolly well please, but (again roughly speaking) I do. As such, academic freedom sounds more like a privilege than a right. Where do I get off claiming to have such a thing? The answer must have to do with the nature of the job and its function in society.

(You can find Professor De George's book on academic freedom here.)

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