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A reflection on academic freedom

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A recent Crimson column by Harvard senior Sandra Korn has stirred national controversy. Ms. Korn argues that universities should abandon academic freedom for a standard of academic justice. She concludes that “if we give up our obsessive reliance on the doctrine of academic freedom, we can consider more thoughtfully what is just.” I disagree with Ms. Korn’s claim and think Ms. Korn’s standard of academic justice actually debilitates a university’s ability to understand justice.

In order to ever arrive at an objectively valuable understanding of right and wrong in academia, this understanding must be subject to an array of disagreement and objection. In this way, the argumentative strength and reasoning of its conclusion can be tested and countered. Any conception of justice that can maintain its integrity following such scrutiny thus gains validity.

Yet, even if such a standard is met, this conception of justice still must be reconsidered with the discovery of new information or inquiry. In this way, a university functions as a constantly evolving exchange of ideas. Strong arguments that appear to move toward a more profound understanding of true knowledge are embraced and those that do not are discarded.

This relationship between a university and justice reveals that in order to best pursue justice, a university must cultivate an environment of constant reevaluation and consideration of even fundamental understandings of right and wrong. In order to establish such an environment, there must be a standard of academic freedom. All ideas and arguments must be allowed and recognized. Without such freedom of exchange, erroneous ideas can exist without challenge and thus provide the basis for inappropriate conclusions. Further, it can prevent the genesis of reasonable ideas.

Before continuing, it is important to qualify that academic freedom can be open to constraint. Restrictions to academic freedom, like restrictions on free speech, are occasionally necessary to secure a safe and effective academic environment but should be, in the words of Fr. Jenkins, “reluctant and restrained.”

Academic justice, as described by Ms. Korn, seeks to restrict and suffocate the academic pursuit of justice and can even lead to a gross misunderstanding of what is truly right and wrong. When a university refuses to recognize ideas that fall outside of a standard of cultural norms or a subjective interpretation of justice, the totalitarian, 1984-esque implications of such a system are obvious.

J. K. Galbraith, a famed Harvard economist, said “the conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.” I would invite Ms. Korn to reflect on this and consider the detriments of her standard of academic justice. Disregarding or even disallowing dissenting ideas or arguments at an academic institution on the grounds of political correctness, popular opinion or misalignment with a subjective conception of justice has the ability to significantly debilitate a university’s capacity to understand justice because it does not subject conventional thinking to proper scrutiny and argument.

While I think it is easy to disagree with Ms. Korn in theory, I think it is valuable to reflect on our own individual commitment to the objective of academic freedom. In other words, does the way in which we engage in intellectual study reflect scrutiny and reevaluation in order to arrive at true knowledge? I think it is important to consider the basis of our own ideology and how it then relates to our own conception of justice.

To what length do we question our individual beliefs? Do we frame our support of such beliefs from objective study and consideration? Or do we seek information to support a previously assumed conclusion? Do these arguments come from internal consideration or are they replicas of external perspectives? Do we seek to understand and reflect on disagreeing viewpoints or do we rely on second hand analysis of such arguments?

While we might externally scorn the dangers of academic study by some subjective set of ideals, how differently does this reflect the way by which we form our own beliefs? In theory we may disagree, but how is this disagreement manifest in our practice?

Environmental and even genetic factors play an almost insurmountable role in determining our beliefs and views. It is literally in our nature to accept a certain ideology without proper consideration or justification. While it is easy to critique Ms. Korn’s perspective, it is much more difficult to consider our tendency to shape our own views from a standard similar to “academic justice.” As the heirs to the intellectual future, we have a responsibility to work against these pervasive tendencies and force ourselves to challenge and properly form our beliefs. To answer and address the challenges our generation will face, we must constantly question, by a standard of reason and evidential support, the status quo of cultural and academic thought to discover truly just solutions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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