(The following was delivered upon the occasion of Prof. George's acceptance of the Philip Merrill Award bestowed by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.)
So tonight we celebrate ACTA and the great cause of higher education reform for which it fights. Buy why does it fight? Why do we fight? To what end do we struggle in the face of entrenched power and stubborn resistance? Why are we concerned about the student whose right to express a dissenting opinion is trampled or the thousands of students who are given a degree but denied an education as a result of the "dumbing down" of the curriculum? Why do we care about the assistant professor who is denied tenure because he would not toe the party line on this or that moral, political, or economic question? Whence this determination to fight for academic freedom?
I submit that it is not, or not merely, a passion for freedom for its own sake. We want our young people and those responsible for teaching them to be free from repression or invidious discrimination, but we fight for these freedoms for a reason that goes beyond them. We fight for freedom from oppression because we believe in freedom for excellence. We want the obstacles of political correctness to be removed so that students and scholars can pursue understanding, knowledge, and truth more robustly across the arts and sciences and appropriate the great goods of human intellectual striving more fully into their lives for their benefit and for the sake of the common good. We honor academic freedom as a great and indispensable value because it serves the values of understanding, knowledge, and truth that are greater still.
Although some have depicted freedom and truth as antithetical, in reality they are mutually supportive and, indeed, dependent on each other. The defense of academic freedom must, implicitly at least, appeal to the concept of truth and any plausible and complete case for academic freedom will present understanding, knowledge, and truth as the intrinsic values and virtues that ground the intelligibility of freedom as something indispensable to their pursuit and meaningful appropriation. On the other side of the question, the overwhelming evidence of history, not to mention the plain evidence under our noses when we examine the contemporary situation in much of the academy, shows that freedom is as necessary to the intellectual life of man as oxygen is to his bodily life. Is a proper freedom boundless? Of course notnot in the academy or anywhere else. But the scope of freedom, as a value that is ordered to truth, must be generousespecially in the academy, where free inquiry, exploration, and experimentation are often essential to insight and richer understanding. Even within its legitimate bounds, can academic freedom not be abused? Of course it can be, and all-too-often it is. Academic freedom does not guarantee excellence (or even passable scholarship). Sometimes respect for it insulates abuses from correction. But, again, the lessons of history and our current situation are clear: repression of academic freedomfar from shielding us from errorundermines the very process of truth-seeking.
But someone might say: "There are many truths we know. Why must we permit them to be denied and questioned? Why not take the view that erroror at least clear errorhas no rights? Otherwise, doesn't the defense of academic freedom collapse into the self-stultifying denial of the possibility of truth? Doesn't it make freedom, rather than truth, the ultimate academic value?
I have already mentioned that some partisans of academic freedom misguidedly depict truth as an enemy of freedom. They appeal to, or presuppose, a species of relativism or subjectivism or radical skepticism in defending freedom of inquiry. Now, it is certainly true that one reason for respecting academic freedom is that people can be mistaken about what they regardeven securely regardas true. Indeed, even unanimity of belief does not guarantee its correctness. But I think that the possibility of error is not the primary or most powerful reason for honoring academic freedomand protecting it even in areas where we are secure in our knowledge of the truth.
The stronger and deeper reason is that freedom is the condition of our fuller appropriation of the truth. Perhaps you have notice the stress I have placed on the idea of appropriation of truth in my remarks already. I use the term because knowledge and truth have their value for human beings precisely as fulfillment of capacities for understanding and judgment. The liberal arts are liberating of the human spirit because knowledge of truthattained by the exercise of our rational facultiesis intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable. "Useful knowledge" is, of course, all to the good; and it is wonderful when human knowledge can serve other human goods, such as health, as in the biomedical sciences, or economic efficiency and growth, or the constructing of great buildings and bridges, or any of a million other worthy purposes. But even "useful knowledge" is often more-than-merely instrumentally valuable; and a great deal of knowledge that wouldn't qualify as "useful" in the instrumental sense is intrinsically and profoundly enriching. This is why we honorand should honorand should honor more highly than we currently do honor in our institutions of higher learningexcellence in the humanities and pure science (social and natural).
Knowledge that elevates and enrichesknowledge that liberates the human spiritcannot be merely notional. It must be appropriated. It is noit cannot bemerely a matter of affirming or even believing correct propositions. The knowledge that elevates and liberates is knowledge not only that something is the case, but why and how it is the case. And typically such knowledge does more than merely settle something in one's mind, it opens new avenues of exploration, its pay off includes new sets of questions, new lines of inquiry.
To return, then, to the question: Why respect freedom even where truth is known securely? I answer in the tradition of Socrates and also the Second Vatican Council in its great Declaration on Religious Freedom: It is because freedomfreedom to inquire, freedom to assent or withhold assent as one's best judgment dictatesis a condition of the personal appropriation of the truth by the human subjectthe human personfor the sake of whomfor the flourishing of whom, for the liberation of whomknowledge of truth is intrinsically valuable. And it is intrinsically valuable not in some free floating or abstract sense, but precisely as an aspect of the well-being and fulfillment of human beingsrational creatures whose flourishing consists in part in intellectual inquiry, understanding, and judgment and in the practice of the virtues which make possible excellence in the intellectual question.
The freedom we defend is freedom for the practice of these virtues. It is freedom for excellence. It is a freedom that, far from being negated by rigorous standards of scholarship, demands them. It is not an "anything goes" freedom, but rather a freedom truly worthy of those who exercise it in the pursuit of truth.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the FIRST THINGS editorial board.)
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