Editorial of Junge Akademie Magazin 25 – Miriam Akkermann and Caspar Battegay

Editorial of Junge Akademie Magazin 25 – Miriam Akkermann and Caspar Battegay

An Invitation to Freedom

‘When we don’t stand up for our rights, we’re not allowed to wonder when they’re taken away from us’. Zsolt Enyedi, Professor of Political Science and Pro-Rector for Hungarian Affairs at Central European University Budapest, in an interview with historian Jan Hennings.

For scholars and scientists, passion, curiosity, and the delight in new ideas is central. Research is based first and foremost on an inner freedom to bring all existing knowledge into question – that is, the freedom to ask questions. And yet, this inner freedom necessitates an outer, more concrete freedom; that of political and economic stability, as well as the guarantee to be able to publish theses and findings unhindered and to discuss them publicly. Therefore, scholarship and scientific research always come with a certain degree of contradiction, not to mention the many differing ethical limits of science – limits that are set not only in the sciences themselves, but also those negotiated by political, juridical and societal factors.

So, what does “academic freedom” (German: Wissenschaftsfreiheit, literally the freedom to create knowledge) mean – both in a concrete sense and in the context of different disciplines? Research physician Alkomiet Hasan asks for example, how work in patient care is compatible or consistent with free clinical research at German university clinics, and what sort of rules must apply in this situation.

"Alongside these ideological and political turf wars in the West, we must also not forget that even in the twenty-first century, censorship and brutal persecution is an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world"

In Germany, as in many other Western countries, academic freedom – the freedom of research and teaching – is explicitly inscribed into the constitution (Article 5). However, as literary scholar Michael Bies explains in an intellectual history of the understanding of academic freedom, there is an extent to which the conditional autonomy of universities—as well as the freedom of creating knowledge—are historically-grown concepts.

It seems that the concept of academic freedom is in crisis; for several years now, universities have been harshly criticized or reduced in size; research emphases have been determined politically and scientific knowledge represented as mere opinion. At the same time, individual disciplines have been represented with political bias in the media. Alongside these ideological and political turf wars in the West, we must also not forget that even in the twenty-first century, censorship and brutal persecution is an everyday occurrence in many parts of the world. At times, this has a direct effect on scholarship. For example, the international publishers Cambridge University Press and Springer have made it impossible to access certain politically-sensitive essays online in China at the request of the Chinese government, which brought about protests in the West. Additionally, since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016, thousands of academics have lost their university positions or have been arrested for specious reasons. Turkish media studies scholar Eylem Çamuroğlu Çığ outlines what it means for institutions and individuals when the powers restrict academic freedom.

How can we as scholars react to such events? And, if anything, is it possible to react in a reasonable way? What are the connection points in the so-called scientific community? Societal condemnation and political confrontations do not stop at the university doors. Indeed, political debates are raging heavily on campuses. A prime example of this is the boycott by various organizations and individuals against Israeli research institutions – for, among other reasons, what they define as Israel’s own restrictions on the academic freedom of Palestinians. This demand has been partially successful in Great Britain and US. For example, in 2006 the British National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education accepted a proposal to boycott all Israeli scholars and scientists who did not openly stand against their government. This decision itself was harshly criticized in Britain – and later reversed. In conflicts like these, the concept of academic freedom is used as a battle cry for authenticating positions in opposition with each other.

This has also led to discussions within the Junge Akademie about whether the scholarly and scientific community should react to political events at all. The question of how political scholarship can be, and whether the Junge Akademie – a publicly financed institution in Germany – may, should or even must express itself politically at all, has given rise to many different views within our ranks. Ethnologist Silja Klepp explains that she describes herself as a scholar-activist, and how political orientation and scholarly work fit together.

Freedom was the battle cry of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. As such, the concept of freedom has always been closely associated with modern science and the modern scientific system. This system has its strengths, but also its disincentives and weaknesses; Frauke Rostalski describes, for example, how unpopular opinions are increasingly excluded from scholarly discourse because of the ambiguous criterion of “compatibility”, thereby generating a form of bondage, or at least homogeneity. In this sense, it is the scholars who must hold fast to the universal value of freedom, and continue to demand it as new situations arise. It is about finding out what freedom can mean and how, specifically, we can interact with it: how, in effect, science and scholarship should be organized altogether.

We would also like to take the opportunity to thank the contributors we have not yet been able to name for their fascinating collaborations: Christoph Lundgreen, Cornelis Menke, Marko Kovic, Adrian Rauchfleisch, Christian Caspar, Anuscheh Farahat, Evelyn Runge and Fabian Schmidt.

Now we hope that you can find a free moment to read – to experience something new, but also be challenged to contradict what you see.


Miriam Akkermann and Caspar Battegay

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