Truth, Knowledge, and Academic Freedom

Microaggressions. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. These are among the latest entries in the ever-expanding lexicon of campus censorship. There appears to be a new free speech crisis on campus, and it seems largely due to demands from a new generation of students to be protected from offensive ideas, emotional triggers, and feelings of being intellectually unsafe.
07/26/2016 04:11 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2017
Censorship concept with books and chains on white
Censorship concept with books and chains on white

Microaggressions. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. These are among the latest entries in the ever-expanding lexicon of campus censorship. There appears to be a new free speech crisis on campus, and it seems largely due to demands from a new generation of students to be protected from offensive ideas, emotional triggers, and feelings of being intellectually unsafe.

But not so fast. Two new books from the academic publisher palgrave macmillan expand the time frame and shift the blame from students to faculty. One of these, Unsafe Space: The Crisis of Free Speech on Campus, is a collection of short, readable chapters. The other, Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, is a systematic book-length analysis by Joanna Williams.

A central thesis of Williams' book and of several chapters in Unsafe Space is that what we see on campus today is the result of changing conceptions of knowledge and truth among university faculty over the past half-century and a corresponding decline in respect for academic freedom. The problem is not recent, she argues convincingly, and is mostly not the fault of students.

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.

The subjectivist conception of knowledge represents an important advance over simplistic objectivist assumptions that professors discover and teach the truth. Knowledge is always subjective in the sense that it reflects, in part, the viewpoint of the knower. Professors, like all people, know the world from their own perspective.

But even if knowledge is inherently subjective, it is simultaneously objective. In the rationalist conception of knowledge that motivates both of these books, we make progress toward increasingly justified beliefs even if final truth lies always beyond our grasp. Researchers, teachers, and students are autonomous agents, freely exchanging and criticizing ideas in a rational process that enhances and advances our knowledge. Truth may be unattainable but it remains the guiding ideal.

Academic freedom in this rationalist conception is the intellectual freedom to fully engage in academic work with others. There is no expectation of reaching uncontestable truths. Nevertheless, knowledge and understanding make progress through rational processes of examination, reflection, and dialogue. These processes require an academic environment that fully respects freedoms of inquiry, teaching, and learning.

Much campus controversy today revolves around issues of respect for others. Respect for others is crucial but, as both these books make clear, such respect is not enough. In the academic context, what matters most is respect for truth. But there is no final arbiter of truth. Instead we seek it through intellectual and social processes that require respect for intellectual freedom.

It's worth adding that respect for intellectual freedom, even when motivated by a concern for truth, brings us right back to respect for others. Full respect for others includes respect for their freedom of expression, even when we don't like what they're saying.