Academic Freedom and Freedom of the Press


By HARRY WOODBURN CHASE, Chancellor of New York University

Delivered at Luncheon of the American College Publicity Association held at the Faculty Club, New York University, January 25, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 286-287

I AM glad to add my greeting to those that have gone before, in welcoming this group of the American College Publicity Association. Your task is one which, from its very nature, is difficult and exacting. It is no easy matter to place and keep before the public an interpretation of an educational institution—to see that news has balance and proportion, that it is attractive and not sensational, accurate without dullness. It requires a wide range of information, endless patience, and skilled craftsmanship. I congratulate you in your membership in a challenging profession.

These are days in which all of us find ourselves subject to unusual emotional pressures. One's mail every morning is filled with appeals to promote this cause, and to join that committee, with an increasing avalanche of requests for sponsorship and promotion which are becoming so much a matter of mass production as increasingly to defeat their own purposes. Universities in particular are exposed to these pressures by virtue of their importance and their variety of interests and contacts. We are asked to organize student and faculty opinion for this and against that, to profess this or that creed, to promote one or another belief in ways which are quite foreign to the functions which universities must necessarily perform. The variety and vigor of these pressure groups are of course increasing as the emergency deepens. It is tremendously difficult for many people to understand that universities are not agencies of propaganda, no matter how worthy the cause may be, but that they are agencies of enlightenment.

It has been one of the essential faiths of those who believe in free institutions that the principles which underlie themand the objectives which animate them can stand the light of day. We have not hesitated to develop in America a great system of education at all levels in which the objective has been not to indoctrinate people and close their minds but to try to teach them the truth and open their minds.

New educational institutions—schools, colleges and universities—after all do not exist in isolation. They are instruments of civilization. They tend both to mold the pattern of civilization and in turn to be molded by it. A very simple illustration of this comes to us from the universities of Germany in our own time. One of the essential parts of the Nazi program was to take over the instruments of education. They molded the German universities into something quite different from what they had been before and in turn students coming out of those schools and universities, stamped with this brand of education, are relied on to mold the Germany of the future.

We have had free universities primarily because we have had free society. We would not have them very long if our civilization were so to change that the fundamental freedoms which are in it would be curtailed or would disappear. I am trying to make the point that you cannot think about the universities of any country without realizing that they are a part of the pattern of the civilization by which the people of that country live and think. One way to get at the heart of the civilization of pre-war England was to understand something about Oxford and Cambridge, and one of the finest examples of the old German culture was the universities that sprang out of that culture.

To try to dissect universities and study them alone, apartfrom their surroundings, is quite an artificial process. They are responsive, of necessity, to the temper of the times and the great underlying movements of thought that characterize a population. After all their students and their faculties do not live in ivory towers today. They are a part of the life that surges about them. This is far more the case than it used to be. The idea of a college as a place in which one may escape from the world is as outworn as the theory of civilization that produced it.

I have said these things because we find ourselves, it seems clear to me, in the earlier stages of a new trend of thought, of a new emphasis as regards the things which underlie the pattern of our own civilization. In a remarkable statement last spring Archibald MacLeish spoke with apology of the fact that so many writers of his generation had been concerned with pointing out the defects of democracy, that they had left youth in a rather cynical and unbelieving attitude toward anything. I think this is true, but I think further that the movement of thought which he mentioned was not at all confined to the craft of writers. Our thought has been profoundly impressed by the prevalence of unemployment, by economic difficulties, by that school of economics which holds that the future of America is linked with contraction rather than expansion of opportunity. In short, much of our thinking for these twenty years has been in terms of negatives. We have criticized things, we have been against things, we have lost our belief in things. I do not for one moment believe that we in education have been exempt from this prevailing mood any more than any other section of our population has been exempt from it.

Now it is well that we should have freedom to be critical and to be negative and to be against things. This is one of the ways in which progress comes, in which desirable changes get brought about. But I want to point out that no great teaching and no great civilization was ever based enduringly on negativism. If you want an illustration of that fact you can find one in the collapse of France, because primarily it had lost the power vigorously to affirm through intelligent practice the fundamental ideals of its own culture.

I think there are abundant indications that we in this country are passing out of a period of negativism into a period of affirmation. The freedom to criticize is not enough: we must have also the freedom to be constructive.

We talk endlessly about defense. Most of us realize that defense is not merely a matter of mechanical supplies but that it is a matter of maintaining free institutions. But surely we need do more than merely to defend democracy. We need to understand it, we need to promote it, we need to build it into something finer and better. I think that our country and our educational institutions will inevitably fromnow on be more concerned with the positive aspects of democracy, with what we can do and what we must believe to promote a way of life which is a way of good will and a way of friendship and a way of justice and a way of mutual respect for difference.

I do not mean that we should be concerned to promote any narrow nationalism. We have seen too much in our own time of what such a spirit can do in the world. I do not mean either that universities should become instruments of propaganda for one or another of the economic and social philosophies that inevitably arise within the framework of a democracy. We are to be concerned with truth, with what is good and honest and just, and it is by such standards that universities must measure their teaching. The freedom of universities is one of the essential freedoms of American civilization. If universities did not have this freedom we should understand far less well than we do the world in which we live and the problems which confront us.

But the ultimate test of any freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of universities, freedom for the pursuit of happiness, I say the ultimate test of any freedom is the use one makes of it. It is not enough to be free if by that we mean that one is blind to his fellows and to his civilization. It is not enough for the press to be free if it uses that freedom for distortion and sensationalism and inaccuracy. Even freedom for the pursuit of happiness is not freedom in the sense of immunity from law and from a decent respect for the opinions of mankind.

I assert, therefore, that universities have a duty to civilization just as civilization has a duty toward them. They cannot be indifferent to the promotion of those ideals and those objectives which build a better civilization and a better world.

It is perhaps true that the tragedy and frustration of these days are teaching us with suffering and sacrifice, the enduring validity of those ideals, which have underlain the history of human progress. We see some things more clearly today because of the very blackness against which they are set. We see the kind of a people and the kind of society that comes into being when men turn their backs on those ideals and set up once again the old despotisms of force, the old treacheries and cruelties that we had thought were gone forever from human society. We are thankful in increasing measure for what we have but it is not enough to be thankful for it. It is surely one of the great tasks of universities to do what they can to transmit to those who come after us a deep and abiding faith and belief in the power, the potency and the ultimate victory of these deep and spiritual conceptions of the worth of man and of the good society.