The Map of Academic Freedom

Once upon a time, in the golden age of yore, colleges and universities sprang up in our great republic. There was discussion about how best to conduct matters in these institutions, and serried solons, professorial and presidential, said, Let there be academic freedom, as principle and institution, so that all may study, all may speak their mind, and the life of the mind may progress tolerably well. And they wrote down Principles, that future generations might know how to conduct themselves when the solons had departed for the Faculty Lounge from which no man returns. Then, for a while, our campuses preserved as their inheritance a sheen of ancient gold.

Here a riot, there a riot, everywhere a riot-riot.

Middlebury, Claremont, Berkeley and Yale:

Seminars in thuggery, never go to jail.

Co-conspiring presidents wink it out in Morse:

“Academic freedom never gets enforced.”

Academic freedom? What is this academic freedom you speak of? Just listen to the thoughtful explanation of a campus catechizer. It might mean the opposite of what you think it means.

No! Steer clear of that killing fog! The devil too can speak of freedom. Here’s a better guide. A chart, a map, with Here Be Principles rather than Here Be Monsters; a stately diagram of what Americans have meant by academic freedom these hundred years and more. O’er dark seas ‘tis meant to guide us ‘twixt the Scylla of student streetfighting, the Charybdis of tenured timidity, and (third and greatest monster) the Aspidochelone of administrative abasement. It is portolan precise.

align=”left” She never did have a face that stayed the same. Don’t help that she got painted by committee, and a committee’ll paint a horse to look a bit like a zebra just so everybody signs their name at the bottom.  

Look, sailor! This chart displays a columnar archipelago, Fiddler’s Greens towards which to set our course: the Ten Major Declarations on Academic Freedom. Subdivided into twenty-five categories, saints preserve us, so you may see at once, by intuitive and total comprehension, all you need to know about each Declaration.

First the authors of each statement, the Woodwards and Kalvens of yesteryear. Then the date of issuance, the definition of academic freedom, the specification of sanctions to declare out-law (or at least suspend) the self-righteous shock-troops of suppression. Also absences, for those with an eye. There is a Brigadoon, academic freedom in pursuit of truth, that disappears for a hundred years. Why is pursuit of truth so absent from this map of academic freedom? To ask the question is to answer it: our age no longer hunts that quarry. Worth knowing, no?

Academic freedom. Who isn’t for that? All the Sandra Korns who trump academic freedom with academic justice, who itch to play a Social-Justice Jeffreys, who dream of gibbets and the scarlet harvest of a Kornschina.  The Black Bloc, the Antifa, the fresh-faced Woke, the Eloi with brass-knuckles.

Avert your eyes. Everyone’s in favor of academic freedom.

Ask a student, ask a prexy,

Freedom’s super! Freedom’s sexy.

Freedom’s frail and caught cachexy

But no one knows, not prof or prexy.

That freedom frail, they all describe her a different way. The AAUP, those Hoffas in elbow patches, they say academic freedom and they mean tenure. The AAC&U, Paulo Freire in and Soapy Sam out, says academic freedom and it means service learning. The Eloi come to maim, they say academic freedom means brass knuckles in a good cause. Some, they say academic freedom and they mean the right to speak, the right to learn, but none of them fanatics have gotten tenure or run a university in fifty years. Academic freedom—‘tis all things to all men, and so beloved, as all featureless things.

She never did have a face that stayed the same. Don’t help that she got painted by committee, and a committee’ll paint a horse to look a bit like a zebra just so everybody signs their name at the bottom.  Committees are Impressionists: when you come too close, all you see is smudges.  And then—you know the AAUP’S 1940 Statement? That great statement of academic freedom endorsed by the People’s Committee of Revolutionary Librarians (River City) and the Carlist Chemists of California?  That was written by a committee of committees, a fudgy compromise to satisfy bolshy profs and Colonel Blimp prexies.  Their academic freedom, she’s two-faced, and both faces blur.

Riot, riot, who goes there? Not Charles Murray, not Heather Mac Donald, not—there’ll be someone new by the time this gets published.  Some raging reactionary like Barack Obama—did you know he was once against gay marriage? Any principled progressive will surely tear down a Starbucks to express her displeasure that the Big Prexy will open his mouth on campus.  If not him, someone else.

For it really doesn’t matter whom you put upon the list:

They’ll none of ‘em be missed! They’ll none of ‘em be missed!

Did you know that half the statements of academic freedom on the chart were issued in the last two years? That’s a symptom of academic freedom dying, riot by riot. Pro forma dissents, blazing alarums, but nothing stops the rioters. Surely not the invisible-ink reprimands, the cautions in the file that disappear after a semester of ‘good behavior,’ the slap on the wrist that satisfies nothing more substantial than the plastic conscience of a dean.

A chart of that imaginary country, Academic Freedom, receding to join those of Mu and Middle-Earth; the Most Serene Republic of Poland and  Tlön; Ruritania (kaiserlich und königlich) and Uqbar and Orbis Tertius. A chart for those who want to restore freedom to our campuses, where the snow of social justice falls more thickly every day and it is never Christmas. Our colleges,

Where still in every class wait the horrible nurses

Itching to boil their children.

A chart for the crazed few who would re-establish old dreams: Pilsudski on the run with a dream of Poland reborn, Havel whose map he held between his teeth to keep his tongue from speaking lies. A chart for those who love learning, a chart for the invisible college that flickers into being in every free inquiry into truth—a chart that those poor souls in the empty halls that call themselves universities can use, if ever they remember their proper offices.

A most absolute and excellent chart: second star to the right, and straight on till morning.


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9 responses to “The Map of Academic Freedom”

  1. I guess I have to thank almighty God that I attended normal schools and America’s finest liberal arts college and thus have no idea what you are talking about.

    • Peter, open and look over the chart (linked) and you will understand, I think.

      • I much prefer Russell Kirk’s Statement on Academic Freedom crafted for Hillsdale College.

        What I meant by my comment was that I have never experienced all the ridiculous things this article refers to, and thank God I was spared the ordeal.

      • Agreed – the piece is less about the alleged subject matter and more an exercise in prolixity and what an old prof I had used to call “academic wankery” (an apt description from a Brit). Scholarliness isn’t demonstrated by a wall of flowery and impenetrable prose masquerading as deep and erudite thought. It is evidenced by distilling complex questions and ideas into eloquent, persuasive and comprehensible phrases. That doesn’t mean writing without art or poetry but it does mean writing for a purpose other than the vainglorious. The ability to liter your sentences with the results of a deep search through a thesaurus shows some keyboard dexterity admittedly but does not make for good or memorable reading, alas.

      • ..but I encountered a new word ..
        Freedom’s frail and caught cachexy

      • I also like to read the “improve your word power” section in Reader;’s Digest but I resist the urge to bore my correspondents with contrived pieces of writing designed to showcase my cleverness at knowing words they do not (the words are usually unknown words for a good reason). Also there is usually an eloquent and more likely to be understood alternative. We have the same problem in the law – educated types who want to show off their “erudition” in drafting contracts or correspondence that then need to be litigated to work out what was actually meant. There is much to commend the goal of always striving for clarity and pithiness in ones writing even if the goal is rarely met.

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  2. The commentary accompanying the NAS chart clearly pinpoints when the rot began. NAS rather blithely points out that the 1915 AAUP Statement of Principles grounded academic freedom in the pursuit of truth, but truth was jettisoned by the “more influential” 1940 Statement of Principles and has been missing ever since.