Academic Freedom Today? Michael Bies

Academic Freedom Today? Michael Bies

Only constant scrutiny can ensure that academic freedom at universities is more than a romanticised fiction.

In answering the question as to what modern universities are and should be, their relationship to academic freedom has played a central role for more than two hundred years. As such, Wilhelm von Humboldt declared in 1810 that universities should follow ‘the pure idea of science’ alone, for which it would be necessary that ‘solitude and freedom’ were the ‘prevailing principles within them’. Indeed, Humboldt had a double freedom in his sights: the freedom from state intervention and from limitations borne of long-held routines and institutional incrustations. Over half a century later, Hermann von Helmholtz came up with similar reflections. In his 1877 speech On the academic freedom of German universities, he stressed that German universities were already ‘founded on freedom’. In contrast to English and French universities, it would therefore be important that, in addition to the scientists themselves, these institutions also granted students ‘uncontrolled freedom’ despite how keenly the ‘statesmen’ wished to limit it.

Is there a decline of academic freedom?

At the contemporary German university, however, freedom as described and called for by Humboldt and Helmholtz is nowhere to be found. Few people would claim that academics there enjoy freedom from the state or federal meddling or, for that matter, from internal incrustation processes. That the students are given an ‘uncontrolled freedom’ can hardly be ascertained in times of closely-audited curricula. Furthermore, that one is given first and foremost the space to research, beholden only to the ‘pure idea of science’, is doubtful. In the meantime, universities seem so geared towards ‘excellence’ that researchers are driven largely by the interests of third-party funding. But it would be too easy to take this discrepancy – between Humboldt and Helmholtz and today – as occasion to complain about the decline of academic freedom. For such a complaint ignores the fact that just because speeches about academic freedom were given does not mean that such a thing really existed. In his call for a university characterised by ‘an unconditional freedom’ in 1998, philosopher Jacques Derrida also points out and emphasises that ‘if this unconditionality, in principle and de jure, constitutes the invincible force of the university, it has never been in effect’. Moreover, such a complaint would obscure that it is in no way unambiguous as to what “academic freedom” is supposed to mean, and often a great many different things are understood in this case. Does it signify a freedom of the sciences – whatever that means – or of individual scholars and scientists? Within what limits should this freedom apply, and how should those limits be decided? And what actually is the status of academic freedom? Does it belong so closely to scholarship, that without it there would be no such thing? Or is it rather an ideal, toward which the scholarly disciplines should orient themselves, even when they can never quite do it justice? Or is the relationship between academia and academic freedom even looser still? Perhaps it would be best conceived as a value, as David Graeber has defined it; as something that individuals in a particular society ‘should want’. In this case, the talk of academic freedom no longer serves scholarship. Instead, its meaning would lie in the fact that it allowed a society (understood to be a liberal one) to assure itself of itself – and to differentiate itself from societies understood as illiberal.

‘Taking it seriously also means putting it on the line, again and again’

With these questions, I in no way mean to relativize or discredit academic freedom as an important fundamental right – for that would be to do the business of those who have dramatically curtailed or simply ignored this right in recent years, not just in Hungary and Turkey. It’s the other way around; it is important to preserve academic freedom, to ask what this means and how viable it is under concrete circumstances, and how it may be used to understand, perhaps even to improve, the state of contemporary universities and scholarly disciplines. For with such constant scrutiny we can be sure that academic freedom is more than a romanticised fiction. Such a romanticised fiction certainly gives scholars the welcome feeling that their actions are in step with a ‘pure idea of science’. It can also be deceptive for scholars, perhaps allowing them to feel all too easily consoled that their everyday actions could not possibly be shaped by outside forces: by the precariousness of academic employment and career aspirations, by research programmes tailored to third-party funding, by the burden of bureaucratic structures or simply by an overwhelming workload and time constraints. In order to prevent the great expression “academic freedom” from being outshone – which precludes research carried out freely – it is insufficient to simply talk of academic freedom. Taking it seriously also means asking for it constantly, and putting it on the line, again and again – even at the risk of it fading slightly, in practice, at universities and within the disciplines.

Durch die weitere Nutzung der Seite stimmst du der Verwendung von Cookies zu. Weitere Informationen

Die Cookie-Einstellungen auf dieser Website sind auf "Cookies zulassen" eingestellt, um das beste Surferlebnis zu ermöglichen. Wenn du diese Website ohne Änderung der Cookie-Einstellungen verwendest oder auf "Akzeptieren" klickst, erklärst du sich damit einverstanden.