Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States

Copyright © 2003 José Cossa

A Book Review of Holfstadter, R. & Metzger, W. P.  (1955).  The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States.  New York, NY:  Columbia University.

The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States is an analytical history of the concept of freedom and a chronological narrative of the development of the concept academic freedom.  Holfstadter and Metger engage in a conceptual analysis of freedom in the circles of America academics by asking:  (a) what it meant to successive generations of academic men; (b) to what extent they have achieved it; and (c) what factors in academics itself, as well as in American culture at large, have created and sustained it.  In a nutshell, the authors inquire as to why freedom exists and why it has been limited (p. x).

According to Holfstadter and Metger The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States is the first part of Columbia University’s The American Academic Freedom Project, directed by Robert M. MacIver, a project that consists of two parts:  (1) a historical survey of the rise, development, and vicissitudes of academic freedom; and, (2) an analysis of the contemporary situation and a study of the problems it presents, against a background designed to bring out the significance of academic freedom and its relation to the society in which we live.

As a reflection of good scholarship and awareness of broadness of topic, Holfstadter and Metger make their delimitations known by defining what it is that they are studying.  They are concerned with the concept and construct freedom within college and university education, primarily with the academic freedom of faculty members and students’ freedom is integrated only when it converges with faculty freedom; however, they opt to provide the reader with pointers to some important resources that cover aspects that they did not cover in this work.

Structurally, the book is divided in two parts:  (a) the age of the college, an age marked by religious and theological questions; and, (b) the age of the university, an age marked by a high preoccupation with science and social problems.  Stylistically, the authors advance their analysis in a chronological fashion from pre-reformation to post-reformation intellectual history.  The use of the Reformation as the reference point from which the history of academic freedom is to be seen constitutes a good indication of how the authors view Christianity as a major player in understanding academic freedom.  The book is a history of the development of academic freedom within a theoretical framework of Christian history, theology, and dogma.  As an indication of the central role of Christianity in understanding academic freedom since the medieval times, Holfstadter and Metger (p. 12) argue that “the intellectual freedom of the medieval scholar existed within the framework of an authoritative system of faith upheld by vigilant positive authority” and they argue that an understanding of academic freedom must take into account the contextual frameworks of its time.  They rally for an exegetical study of history and posit the following:

Since it is our purpose to enter sympathetically into the spirit of the medieval academic experience and understand the function of the medieval university from the point of view of its period, it is necessary to take from the moment a relative view, accepting as given the medieval frameworks of ideas.  (p. 12)

The authors invite the reader to recognize the difference between historical periods since they set the platform for the development of the concept academic freedom, to recognize the difference between the various constructs of freedom as used in each phase of the development of the idea of academic freedom, and to take into account the forces at work in the intellectual sphere as history unfolded.  The chronology of intellectual or academic freedom advances with a background of Christian dogmatisms (in which heresy was defined as departure from the Catholic Christian worldview) of the pre-reformation era, a background of humanism during the renaissance and reformation era, and later a background of religious freedom and consequent denominationalism in the United States.

I agree with the authors’ choice to start with the early developments of academic freedom in order to establish a foundation for a better and thorough understanding of the “nature of the beast.”  The plight for Academic freedom in America can be better appreciated when the complex developmental history is seen in perspective.  When denominationalism and sectarianism are seen as major players to both promote and discourage academic freedom, one can only begin to wonder whether freedom is desired because it is a right of all citizens or if it is desirable because it serves selfish or group interests.  This is a paradox surrounding academic freedom, whether one studies it within the religious framework of sectarianism and denominationalism or the political framework of democracy.  Michael Perko, discussing about red-hunts and the communist saga in the United States, asserts the following:

In times when academic freedom is not challenged, academic leadership is in support of it; however, in times when it is challenged leadership rolls over it.  During the times of the red-hunts, membership in the communist party constituted a ground for expulsion from, exclusion, or non-acceptance into a faculty position.  (Lecture on American Higher Education, Loyola University of Chicago, 2003)

One aspect that deserves negative criticism in Holfstadter and Metger that caught my attention is their discussion of Thomas Clap (pp. 163-177).  The authors depart from their methodology and ethics as historians to subjective critiques of a historical man.  Clap is characterized by negative attributes in an obviously subjective manner rather than placed in the book as an actor meriting attention for his position as a leader who reflected a particular sectarian dogmatism and influenced academic freedom in his time.  The authors’ passionate yet negative discussion of Clap tinted, unnecessarily, what would otherwise be a near-perfect piece of work.  Despite the authors’ initial refrain from polemics, they end up raising a polemic in this section, particularly for those who would see Clap’s contribution and behavior in a different way.

Holfstadter and Metger close the book in a mixed tone of both encouragement and despair.  Encouragement because the understanding of academic freedom has evolved to reach more sophisticated infrastructures and support systems and despair because unless one is assertive enough the infrastructures and support systems are of no avail.  The authors posit,

In the present climate of opinion, these factors are not sufficient to give courage to the circumspect or timid, but they provide a considerable measure of security for professors who have the hardihood to assert themselves.  (p. 506)


No one can follow the history of academic freedom in this country without wondering at the fact that any society … should possess the vision to subsidize free criticism and inquiry, and … one cannot but be appalled at the slender thread by which it hangs … one cannot but be disheartened by the cowardice and self-deception that frail men use who want to be both safe and free.  With such conflicting evidence, perhaps individual temperament alone tips the balance toward confidence or despair.  (p. 506)

An understanding of this complexity and conflict is important even today.  This book is relevant to the current society and provides a framework from which to understand today’s struggles with the paradox found in the relationship between democracy and academic freedom in higher education in the United States and abroad.  To what extent is academic freedom truly freedom and if there is any state of nirvana in the issue of academic freedom is a question that can be asked under any system of government.  This is indeed a must-read for those who are interested in higher education history, academics, and educational politics in general.
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