Hemlock, on Tap
Ed Dutton endorses a brave and timely tome
Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, by Joanna Williams, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, PB., 217pp.
Like a dramatist building to a climax, Joanna Williams, education lecturer at the University of Kent and education editor for SpikedOnline, delays hitting you with her message. ‘Without academic freedom,’ she eventually asserts, ‘universities risk returning to the status of Medieval institutions, only rather than paying homage to the church, many scholars today choose to worship at the altar of liberal opinion’ (p.198). This is the disturbing conclusion of this book. Academia is becoming less ‘academic’ by the day, with trigger warnings on courses, safe spaces for students, an overwhelmingly anti-conservative academic body and the persecution of academic dissent.
Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity is tightly written and is clearly referenced (books are mentioned within the text). Williams takes us on a journey through the history of the academy and the parallel history of academic freedom. It is a sobering read and from the outset we see a conflict over how academic freedom should be defined.
For Socrates, academic freedom was absolute. Everyone should engage in critical debate. In due course, Socrates was sentenced to death for ‘corrupting the young’ of Athens. Aristotle, in contrast, argued that academic freedom was a privilege earned through knowledge gained, something which can be seen as the first serious assault on academic freedom.
Medieval universities – universities maintained their religious nature well into the nineteenth century – had little interest in academic freedom other than within strict limits. Their purpose was to glorify God, and to produce knowledge that was useful for the state, by training lawyers, doctors and priests. In theory, the university was protected from outside interference, although Williams gives examples of dissenting theologians being executed during the Reformation.
The university was controlled by the Church and the State, meaning that serious academic freedom did not exist for university employees. Accordingly, until well into the nineteenth century, serious research – that actually questioned current knowledge – mainly took place outside of universities. It was engaged in by gentleman scholars like Charles Darwin, clever men with wealthy patrons, and by enthusiastic amateurs, including working class naturalists, such as the shoemaker Thomas Edward (b. 1814), who might be particularly enthusiastic about crustaceans or fossils. These amateurs were the men behind the Industrial Revolution, as there were no scientists at universities.
From Williams’ perspective, there are four key perspectives on academic freedom or the nature of the university. These are; the Socratic belief in the freedom to constantly challenge accepted authority; Aristotle’s view that you earn the right to do this through your proven wisdom; the view that the university should provide economically useful knowledge; and finally the idea that the university should be about promoting a certain ideology and that freedom should be restricted if it challenges this. Not surprisingly, Williams argues for the first of these options – that knowledge is a good in itself.
She points out that things began to change – in a positive direction – with the Enlightenment, with its Socratic emphasis on reason. Beginning in Germany, universities became less beholden to the church. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, the British government, for example, increasingly understood that scientific knowledge could only be reached through unfettered enquiry. This focus on the empirical method ‘coincided with the concerns of the state’ (p.38) which was engaged in an Industrial arms race with Germany. Thus, universities came to encompass what were seen as useful subjects – such as engineering – but those of a more theoretical bent were given the freedom to pursue knowledge as well. A sense of nationalism was used to justify the less scientific departments: the study of English literature, for example, was seen as way of holding the nation together by allowing people to understand (high) ‘culture.’ Academics not only had jobs for life, they could research pretty much whatever they wanted. To an extent, knowledge was a good in itself.
However, after World War II, several factors interfered with this Golden Age. Politicians increasingly wanted universities to be financially viable, meaning they had to produce knowledge that was for the ‘public good.’ This idea – that universities shouldn’t be wasting the taxpayer’s money researching obscure topics like Medieval poetry – reached an apogee with the New Labour Government in 1997. For Tony Blair and co, the university was about acquiring useful knowledge in order to get a well-paid job, so there should, of course, be tuition fees. A further factor was the need to prevent academics ‘abusing’ their potential position to be unhelpful to the state. Thus, during the McCarthy witch-hunts, it was argued that freedom of academic enquiry was based, in effect, on ‘wisdom’ and that since Communists clearly lacked this, they should be fired. Related to this, argues Williams, is the notion that certain facts – such as Climate Change – are beyond dispute. No sensible person would dispute them and only experts in climate change should be allowed to discuss them.
The final factor was postmodernism. This involved prioritising an ethical imperative, the desire for equality, for example, above the desire for knowledge and even questioning whether knowledge is possible. The Holocaust, it is argued, was a product of unfettered ‘logical’ thinking, especially as applied to the issue of race. Implicitly, therefore, there are areas of ‘dangerous knowledge.’ If research causes people to feel threatened or questions their equality, it is unacceptable. Forget ‘academic freedom,’ some prominent scholars have argued, we want ‘academic justice.’ And, anyway, there are no real ‘truths.’ ‘Truth’ – and thus reason and the idea of academic freedom – is simply the perspective of the powerful.
In the book’s most depressing chapters, Williams looks at what this has led to. If there is no real truth, then the role of academics is to compare equally valid perspectives. And the identity of the person who argues the case is what really matters. An academic is worth listening to because they are not white, male or middle class. The logical merit of the latter’s views is irrelevant – and ‘academic freedom’ is merely a way of upholding the powerful. So we see the development of nakedly ideological disciplines – Women’s Studies, African Studies etc. And Marxists, who once pleaded for ‘academic freedom’ against Joseph McCarthy, have taken over much of academia, and the social sciences and humanities in particular. Even within hard science, whether work is published, who gets what grant, and who gets a contract renewed in an environment where a permanent job is a thing of the past, becomes subject to manipulation. Moreover, students are now viewed as ‘paying customers’ who demand that the university be a ‘safe space’. And the ludicrous practice of ‘student feedback’ on courses is taken into account in promotions. All this leads to massive self-censorship by academics.
We have, the author suggests, come full circle and returned to the Medieval concept of the university. This will surely lead to a situation in which seriously innovative research no longer happens at universities. It will be conducted, just as it was well into the nineteenth century, by enthusiastic amateurs, people of independent means (such as retired academics), and by trained academics with a patron. In my experience, this is already happening.
This process of the rise and fall of the university fits well with the theory presented by myself and Bruce Charlton in our 2015 book The Genius Famine. We found that intelligence (which is about 80% genetic) was being selected for until the Industrial Revolution, because wealth (which correlates with IQ) predicted how many surviving children you had. As such, we were getting cleverer and cleverer. And intelligence positively correlates with ‘Intellect’ – being interested in ideas for the sake of it. Intelligence is also negatively associated with authoritarian political perspectives.
There is, however, a large body of evidence that intelligence is now declining and has been since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, we highlighted a 15 IQ point drop over the last 100 years – the difference between a police officer and a teacher or between a teacher and a doctor. This is happening because of the rise of contraception, the welfare state, and because women are widely pursuing careers, intelligence is now negatively associated with how many children you have. Whereas large families happen by accident, more intelligent people plan better and delay fertility to pursue a career. Or they simply desire fewer children. Based on this, we would expect ‘Intellect’ to decline, and authoritarianism to increase. So what has happened to the university is entirely explicable in terms of evolutionary psychology.
Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity is a must-read for every thoughtful person. We need more educationalists like Joanna Williams, who truly believe in the pursuit of knowledge.
Dr Edward Dutton is the author, with Bruce Charlton, of The Genius Famine: Why We Need Geniuses, Why They’re Dying Out and Why We Must Rescue Them, Buckingham University Press, 2015