Academic Freedom


By DANIEL L. MARSH, President of Boston University

Address to the National Council of Education, Boston, June 29, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 613-617.

WHATEVER else American Democracy may stand for, it certain stands for academic freedom. Academic freedom is a term used so much that it is beginning to grow smooth, showing signs of wear, and therefore is often loosely used. In order that the term may fit properly into this discussion, let us roughen it a bit with the file of definition.

Freedom means to be untrammeled, free from restraint, from fetters. Academic freedom means that each professor and student is free to seek the truth in his own way, toform his own opinions, to arrive at his own conclusions, and to announce his own convictions. He is not to be limited by patented dogma, faint-hearted consideration, inherited tradition, or acquired prejudices. He is free to be the bondslave of Truth. He does not need to bend the knee to error, nor to fawn before flattery, nor to cringe before denunciation, nor to yield to the lawless impulse of his own self.

All advancement in human knowledge and all progress in civilzation—from alchemy to chemistry, from astrology to astronomy, from wigwams to our modern homes, from fire-signaling to telephones and radios—has been achieved through fidelity to this principle of freedom of research.

The general dissemination of knowledge is fundamental to the functioning of democracy. In a democracy, the people are the rulers. That elementary truth is in need of constant repetition. The people cannot act wisely without accurate knowledge. They cannot arrive at the right determination of their course in respect to happenings without free discussion. The discussion that formerly was carried on in the general store or the town meeting has in these latter days, for the most part, been transferred to the printed page. The people have both the right and the correlative duty of discussion, for in a democracy the government officials are servants of the people. Therefore, the people must be free to discuss the work of these officials, to criticize it, to find fault with it, to tell the officials what to do, and to dismiss them if they do not do it. That is the reason for the protection of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights in the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances."

The founders of our Republic were wise in putting into the Constitution this protection of freedom of speech, press, religion and conscience. They knew enough history to know that the perversion of rights is easy of accomplishment. It must never be forgotten that when civil liberties are lost to any people, they are lost by what appear to be due processes of governmental action.

Many persons, in order to show their hatred of a Communistic or Fascistic despotism, say and do things that prepare the way for despotism. We stand for democracy, and not for despotism of any kind, either "left" or "right." Both the Fascist and the Communistic States must have controlled and regimented schools of all grades. Under a dictatorship, a university is an instrument of propaganda, committed to the teaching of an official view, impressing it by frequent repetitions. In countries governed by dictatorships the role of the university is simple—and as sterile as it is simple.

Why do so many good people lend themselves to the furtherance of a program which would muzzle professors and stuff wax in the ears of students? There are doubtless many motives, not only many motives in the mass, but also mixed motives in the individual. The principal motive, however, is fear—fear that is born of ignorance and prejudice. Some of these super-patriots work themselves up into an alarmist attitude. They seem to enjoy scaring themselves like Wallace Irwin's Japanese Schoolboy who talked of "delicious shudders." Others of them are like the "Fat Boy" in Dickens' "Pickwick Papers," whose chief ambition in life was to make folks' "flesh creep." So these people are always giving themselves "delicious shudders" and trying to make the flesh of others "creep" by their talk of the "Red Menace," "Fifth Columnists," etc., in our schools, alarming us with the repeated announcements that the Communists or the Nazis, or somebody else will violently overthrow our government.

Much of this talk about the Nazi peril or the "Red Menace" is only a "red herring" device in practical politics used by ignorant, bigoted, or selfseeking minorities to cast suspicion upon or weaken the position of those who block their selfish way. The favorite way to obscure an issue is to clothe one's self with virtue and to smear one's opponent with opprobrium. The most successful way at present to do this smearing is to use the Nazi or the Communistic brush. Liberalism, radicalism, socialism, are also used as "red herrings." When rascality wears the mask of patriotism, it can make the powers of totalitarianism look attractive. We must be careful, however, not to allow our opposition to pseudo-patriotism—to rascality masquerading as patriotism—to cause us to repudiate real patriotism. All we need do is to distinguish real patriotism from fraud.

Fear, jealousy, hatred, ignorance, prejudice, intolerance, are links in the chain of despotism. Our universities are, or ought to be, the strong fortresses for the defense of our liberties not only, but of civilization itself. Let academic freedom go, and the next step will be to muzzle the press, and then to regiment the pulpit. Freedom of discussion in the classroom, in the press, and in the pulpit is essential to the freedom of any people, anywhere, any time. Academic freedom is the essential character, the indispensable quality of free speech.

I have referred to fear; but the impelling fear is not the fear of any particular "ism" so much as it is the fear of change. Social change is going on everywhere, and fear is rife wherever there is change. There can be no life without growth, and there can be no growth without change. No vital institution, no worthwhile institution of democratic society can be kept static without being destroyed. Technological invention makes for change. If we would avoid revolution, we must not allow social invention to lag too far behind technological invention.

If change is essential to civilization no less than to life, wise people will ask how society will accomplish change—whether it shall be orderly or disorderly, constructive or destructive, by a process of evolution or by the wasteful methods of revolution. Two possible attitudes are suggested in a blank verse composition by Josephine Johnson:

"Caught in the too-tight skin, in the too-tight shell,
The snake, the locust, the crab—
Do they shed them with anguish,|
Emerge spent with conflict, soft with pain?
"Or is the shedding of the old husk
A triumph,
With no regret for the known, the familiar—
Only a sense of power, of growth, of a boundless future
Unshackled, unrestrained!"

Change for the better can be realized only when discussion is freely allowed. One way to keep discussion from degenerating into demagoguery is to prepare it by wise education. Academic freedom guarantees free and honest discussion in the classroom of controversial issues. I would have you note that I have used "honest" as a qualifying adjective of discussion on an equality with the word "free." No person can be guaranteed freedom unless he is willing at the same time to accept the responsibilities of freedom. Free and honest discussion of methods for improving government, for improving society, for improving civilization, will appear all the more important when we remember that every truly democratic government carries provision in its fundamental law for change.

The importance of the individual, the sacred worth of the person, the essential quality of individual human rights—these are the things that are central to any genuine Democracy. Edwin Markham, in his little poem on "Man Making" expresses well our thought:

"We are all blind until we see
That in the human plan,
Nothing is worth the making, if
It does not make the man.

"Why build these cities glorious
If man unbuilded goes?
In vain, we build the world unless
The builder also grows."

We are all blind, says Markham, until we see that the unfolding of personality, the making of the individual, is the important thing. That is what true education is: the leading out of the individual into a complete and rightly integrated personality, at home with himself and at home in the universe. This intellectual blindness to which Markham refers may come from hysteria and fear as much as the physical blindness of that man whose case the Associated Press reported some months ago,—a man who lived in Missouri and who had regained his sight suddenly after four years of blindness. Then after he had had his sight for some six months, a bright light flashed in his eyes one night, and startled, he cried out, and "then everything went black," he said. Since then, he has been as blind as he was after the accident that made him blind four years ago. His physician explains his affliction as photophobia—"fear of light." "He will see again," the doctor says, "when his fear of light is broken by a firm conviction that he can see."

In the distressing condition afflicting the world today, there is so much fear that I am persuaded some persons fear the light. Some persons have been so blinded by the cruel flashes of war that they can no longer see straight.

No informed person will question the healthy and wholesome Americanism of the late Mr. Justice Holmes. He plead like "an angel trumpet-tongued" for toleration of difference of opinion. He said: "If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

When the college and university presidents of Massachusetts put themselves on record as opposing anything that even points in the direction of stifling academic freedom, we thereby declared our belief in America. We do believe in America; we are loyal to its democratic tradition and to the spirit of its Constitution. It follows naturally, because of our Americanism, that we are opposed to the hypocrisy of un-American behavior in the name of Americanism. It is un-American to suppress speech, assembly, or thinking. It is un-American to curtail privileges of citizenship, of government, or of opportunity to improve government or society. We have so much faith in America that we are not afraid to have our democratic form of government tested against any other form of government in the world. As Thomas Jefferson affirmed in his First Inaugural Address, so do we reaffirm that "error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

That our University, and all great universities, are justified in claiming full and unimpaired academic freedom is a truth well buttressed by another utterance of Mr. Justice Holmes. He says:

"When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power ofthe thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment. Every year, if not every day, we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge. While that experiment is part of our system I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expressions of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death."

Those words of Justice Holmes—"The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market"—those words are reminiscent of the answer which Professor Gamaliel made to certain persons who advocated the persecution of a bothersome sect called Christians. Thus does the twentieth century shake hands with the first century.

You will pardon me if I mention here my book, "The American Canon"' The thing I have aimed at in "The American Canon" is to furnish the foundations of an intelligent patriotism—a patriotism that can be both fervent and dynamic because it is born of intelligence. It is more difficult to create an enthusiastic devotion, even to the point of sacrifice, for an ideal than for a person. Thus totalitarianism, which precisely focuses sacrificial devotion to a person, has an immediate, albeit shallow, advantage over true American Democracy, which demands allegiance to ideals. But if each succeeding rising generation is made intelligent concerning the genesis and development of these ideals, if each succeeding generation is made appreciative of solid attainments of national character, if each succeeding generation learns beyond a quibble or peradventure that our American republican form of government is the crowning evolution of the ages; that in it are all of the achievements from Marathon to Runnymede, and from Runnymede to the Constitutional Convention of 1787—I say if each succeeding generation is given a clear and intelligent understanding of the basis of American Democracy, then our youth will give it their allegiance without grudging or dudgeon. We do not need to resort to false propaganda: All we need to do is to let our youth know the facts.

Whenever a people loses the conviction that a democratic form of government—a truly democratic form and not merely one in name—is better than any other form, then the death knell of Democracy has already been sounded. Whenever a people's devotion to Democracy becomes diluted, then Democracy is on the way out. The tragedy of it all is that a nation may be slowly poisoning Democracy by administering opiates to hush its voice of rebuke against those who are losing their devotion to it. The peril is that some persons will become so zealous in their defense of their own narrow notion of Democracy that they will sacrifice real Democracy itself. Indeed, it has come to such a pass that some persons actually advocate defending our American way of life from the encroachments of totalitarianism by the very devises and methods that totalitarianism uses. I actually heard within the recent past a debate in the Senate of the United States in which senators advocated conscripting the public press under certain contingencies for the dissemination of government propaganda, and justified it on the grounds that that is what Hitler has done. In the name of common sense, if we accept Hitlerism in order to combat Hitlerism, what is it that we are defending from Hitlerism?

One of the great economists and philosophers that Great Britain produced in the nineteenth century was John Stuart Mill. When he wrote on government, he wrote not only as one of the profoundest thinkers of all time, but as a man ofexperience as well, for he was a member of the British Parliament, His "Essay on Representative Government" is still a classic, and in that essay he said some things that need to be pondered today. Note the following paragraph:

"A people may prefer a free government; but if, from indolence, or carelessness, or cowardice, or want of public spirit, they are unequal to the exertions necessary for preserving it; if they will not fight for it when it is directly attacked; if they can be deluded by the artifices used to cheat them out of it; if, by momentary discouragement, or temporary panic, or a fit of enthusiasm for an individual, they can be induced to lay their liberties at the feet even of a great man, or trust him with powers which enable him to subvert their institutions—in all these cases they are more or less unfit for liberty; and though it may be for their good to have had it even for a short time, they are unlikely long to enjoy it."

The only way that subversive propaganda can be effectually combated is by an enlightened patriotism—a patriotism that is sprung of a knowledge of American history, and that is nourished with the ideals and loves and sacrificial devotions which have entered into the making of our goodly heritage of liberty and self-government, and that has grown strong and healthy by exercise in the duties of citizenship. The right kind of education so uses academic freedom as to beget patriotic children. It rears them in the nurture and admonition of American ideals and patriotism. It trains them in the exercise of the duties of citizenship. It aims to make its children know what American Democracy is, and to develop fervent allegiance to it.

The most intelligent and best friends of academic freedom know that it is not absolute. The wisest recognize the limitations of liberty, the restraints of freedom—not limitations or restraints imposed by some external authority; but by one's own sense of the responsibility of freedom. An eagle that has been confined by the bars of a cage is free when the door is opened and it is allowed to fly out. It is free to soar against the sun and to rest on mountain crags. Is it not also free to return to the cage, or to contest the highway with automobiles, or to fight airplanes, or to go swimming in the ocean? Not if it is true to its own nature and to the essence of freedom for it.

Academic freedom is never an end in itself; it is but a means. The end is the discovery of truth and beauty and goodness. It is when one gets the idea that freedom is an end instead of a means, and that it offers no burden of responsibility, that he makes of himself a fool or a nuisance—or both! I know of nothing more intolerant than self-conscious tolerance; of nothing more illiberal than boastful liberality; of nothing more fettered than irresponsible freedom. Intellectual freedom, rightly understood, means independence from unjust restraint, not independence from all authority.

The person who feels the responsibility of his academic freedom knows that it is the truth that has made him free. And that is not always the same thing as mere intellectual asset to orthodox creedal dogma—religious, political, economic, or otherwise. Opinions are nothing more than prejudices until they become a part of our own experience and thought. Mastery means freedom. When we have mastered the art of poetry or the science of medicine we can forget the rules; for the spirit of the art or of the science has made us free, and we keep its rules most perfectly when we are unconscious of their presence. So also is it with the one who has mastered the art or the science of scholarly research or of teaching.

If our academic freedom is a means to an end, and the endis the truth, then it follows that we must reverence the truth along the way. The ancient Egyptians regarded the truth as "the main cardinal virtue." Plato taught that "the genuine lie is hated by all gods and men." In St. John's vision of the city of God, he noted that traitors to the truth were left outside with other despicable characters: "Without are the dogs and the sorcerers and the fornicators and the murderers and the idolators and everyone that loveth and maketh a lie."

All science rests upon inviolable truth. One of the greatest scientists of this generation is Robert A. Millikan. In his recent book, "Science and the New Civilization," Dr. Millikan says: "In physics, the procedure in problem solving is always first to collect the facts, i.e., to make the observations with complete honesty and complete disregard of all theories and all presuppositions, and then to analyze the data to see what conclusions follow necessarily from them, or what interpretations are consistent with them." And then he goes on to say: "I regard the development and spread of this method as the most important contribution of science to life, for it represents the only hope of the race of ultimately getting out of the jungle."

The very core of the scientific spirit is the search for truth. Scientists like Helmholtz and Darwin and Louis Pasteur and Alexander Graham Bell won their immortal renown by their achievements; but they could not have achieved what they did had they not yielded unalloyed loyalty to the truth. Was it not probably some such restricting of freedom as this that St. Augustine felt when he spoke of "The Beautiful necessity of the good?"

Chinese Gordon once wrote to his sister: "If you tell the truth, you have infinite power supporting you; but if not, you have infinite power against you."

The fact that a man who enjoys academic freedom is the bondservant of truth could not be much better stated than by Wordsworth in his "Ode to Duty."

"Me this unchartered freedom tires;
I feel the weight of chance desires:
My hopes no more must change their name,
I long for a repose that ever is the same.
Oh, let my weakness have an end!
Give unto me, made lowly wise,
The spirit of self-sacrifice;
The confidence of reason give;
And in the light of truth thy Bondman let me live!"

Another responsibility of freedom within the university is the recognition of values. We must maintain a sense of proportion, to keep our knowledge aesthetically balanced. The sense of values will cause us to keep our knowledge in tune with the things in life that are worth while. Unless our quest of knowledge is assimilated by our nature, organically amalgamated with our own selves, it is likely to become an alien tumor on our psychic brain. Values will hold the standard of excellence ever before us, filling us with a divine discontent, a sacred dissatisfaction with even our best achievement. A sense of values will lend an unspeakable solemnity and awe to all our work, give zest to our daily grind, and pave us from the doldrums of stagnation.

What are the things that matter, that should constitute the aim of education? One answer is given by Dean Klapper, of the College of the City of New York, in his new book "Contemporary Education." According to him the objective that should determine curricula, methods of instruction and policies of organization and administration in all education, from the lowest to the highest, should be the pupil's adjustment to the world in which he lives and which determines his well-being: physical adjustment, social adjustment, mental adjustment, economic adjustment.

J. A. Hadfield, of Oxford, in his recent book, "Psychology and Morals," says that "The first object of all education, intellectual as well as moral and religious, is the formation of right sentiments and dispositions, that is to say, the attachment of emotions to the right objects, ideas, and persons . . . these sentiments can only become the basis of a strong character when they have become the abiding spring of right habit and conduct." The same writer, warning against the danger of liberty becoming libertinism, says that "the adequate stimulus of will, the stimulus which is peculiarly adapted to arouse the self into activity, is the Ideal." And "the Ideal is that, the attainment of which produces completeness and self-realization."

I do not know of any finer expression of values, any better cataloguing of ideas to which our emotions might properly be attached, or any more adequate Ideal as a stimulus to the will, than St. Paul gives in his letter to the Philippians: "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report: if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

That ideal is the touchstone of freedom. Examine your life and see if what I say is not true. "The unexamined life is not worthy of being lived by one who calls himself a man," said Socrates. "Think on these things," said Paul; take an inventory of these things, keep your mind upon them, set a value upon them; for thought precedes accomplishment. We grow like the things we think about. The good is positive, not negative.

This responsibility of freedom to values will prompt us to believe with Santayana that "what we know are scattered syllables of a single eternal oracle," and that "intelligence is but one centrifugal ray darting from slime to stars." Not only are all the sciences allies; but science and the humanities, science and religion are allies also. The music of the spheres is not cosmic jazz.

When Walter Lippmann sets out to write "A Preface to Morals," he is oppressed and depressed with the conviction hat "the modern man has anarchy in his soul"; that although he desires health, money, power, beauty, love, truth, ret "which he shall desire the most since he cannot pursue them all to their logical conclusions he no longer has any means of deciding. His impulses are no longer parts of one attitude toward life; his ideals are no longer in a hierarchy under one lordly ideal."

What is the adequate answer to this anarchy in the soul? Although Lippmann thinks he sees the dissolution of the ancestral order, yet he knows that "there must be as there has been in all the historical religions, something more than a statement of the moral law. There must be a psychological machinery for enforcing the moral law."

The one and only answer to the need that bows us thus is the religious synthesis. That is what former President Hadley of Yale meant when he declared that "to produce character, education must call to her assistance religion." A similar conviction was expressed by Woodrow Wilson, when he said that "Education has always yielded its best fruits when associated with religion."

In the interest of true freedom, therefore, I am ambitious that we may have coordination, cooperation, synthesis. All truth is one: the biologist or psychologist, the historian or economist, the artist of philosopher, must seek unfettered for the truth as he sees it. But the policy of studying science, or theology, or history, or any other subject exclusively is wrong. The truly educated person does not have merely a variety of isolated and often conflicting points of view, but a coherent understanding of the whole range of human experience. Every student is entitled to see his work not in isolation, but in relation to a wider scheme of thought.

It is thus the truth makes us free, bringing order out of chaos and giving unity and sanity to life; emancipating the mind from the tyranny of materialism, and the soul from the fetters of sense.