IT’S a hot, controversial issue, this thing about academic freedom. And it’s understandable because what is involved is something very intimate to a person working in an academic community.
Ideas, theories, views, opinions are so personal that anything that would tend to obstruct them can be very painful. Everything has to be done to avoid such predicament, therefore.
And so, I somehow understand why this academic freedom can be defined in its extreme form, as Wikipedia would have it, as:
“The belief that the freedom of inquiry by students and faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.”
Some parties involved in this issue have even gone to the extent of describing academic freedom, again taking from Wikipedia, as having the following properties:
a) “Academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and,
b) “Academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal.”
Still, while I and any decent man would respect such freedom, I also could not help to point out that such take on academic freedom is one-sided and is oblivious and quite naïve of other factors and conditions that need to be taken into consideration also.
This extreme form of academic freedom has to contend also with the rights of the other parties involved. And more basic to the issue would be that some structure be made in the academic community where a healthy exchange of views could be done, and clear guidelines have to be made.
The dynamics of this exchange of ideas should be closely monitored and managed, otherwise there would be chaos and confusion. And rules of the game should be clearly spelled out for this.
Thing is we cannot deny the fact that academic communities have their basic constitution that, no matter how imperfect it is, should be respected and upheld, unless legitimately revised.
So if an academic institution defines itself as religious or Christian or Catholic, etc., then certainly any position that smacks of atheism or agnosticism or that contradicts an official teaching of said faith, would be out of place.
We cannot invoke here the excuse of freedom of conscience, because personal conscience cannot fly without reference to an objective moral law that is authoritatively taught by a legitimate institution.
Freedom of conscience, which is often used as the rationale for academic freedom, does not work in a vacuum. To function well, it needs a proper environment that can consist of a moral law based on human nature as defined by a lawful authority.
Otherwise, anybody can just go against these official doctrines invoking all sorts of self-created justifications, or justifications derived from inadequate foundations.
Such is the case when in talking about what is moral, only considerations derived from practicality, popularity, convenience, etc. are made. The spiritual and the supernatural aspects of man are completely ignored.
The conflict in this issue of academic freedom actually boils down to what conception of man one has. Is man simply a biological, social, economic and political being, or is he a creature of a God who made him in his image and likeness, and therefore has spiritual and supernatural dimensions?
One thing good about this debate or dialogue on academic freedom is that it surfaces very basic issues that should be tackled by all of us, especially now when we are marching on to a fast-paced development and progress.
We seem to take these fundamental things in our life for granted and to focus only on what is here and now, what is immediately felt, what is just earthly and temporal such that we forget the other transcendent dimensions of our life.
I really hope and pray that this discourse can go on, involving as many parties as possible and covering as many aspects as possible as well. Let’s hope that the media can help in facilitating this public discourse.
Let’s also hope that all parties who participate in it do so with honest intentions and good dispositions, keeping a good grip on our emotions and passions that can easily spoil the whole thing.
There’s always hope. Controversies can be opportunities for greatness and enlightenment rather than just problems.