Academic freedom: What is it and what it isn’t - Cardinal Newman Society

Academic freedom: What is it and what it isn’t

The finest possible education must necessarily be Catholic in the fullest sense of the word. However, Catholic education, and indeed all forms of modern education, have fallen on dark times. What the public schools are doing is dreadfully disrespectful to the human person. Most unfortunately, Catholic education is not faring much better. Indeed, a real crisis of faith and reason beleaguers our beloved Catholic schools.

The issues are many and have roots deep in the philosophical history of errors. The darkened minds of fallen men have rejected revelation, philosophical truth, and even a proper science, all of which has had a negative impact on education. One of the biggest problems is a distorted notion of academic freedom. Although all education must be academic and freeing, we have lost sight of what these words really mean when in right relation to Catholic education. What is called “academic freedom” today is not academic or freeing.

The very soul and substantial form of a nation is impacted by its system of education. The old saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln—“the philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next”—rings true. It becomes increasingly difficult to defend modern institutions of higher learning as we stand witness to dramatic societal decay. Care for a proper education, beginning with the family and home, leads to health in society.

Except for those relatively few Catholic colleges faithfully trying to resuscitate Catholic liberal education, most colleges and universities have become antithetical to the human person and human learning. Reductive and subjectivist Enlightenment ideologies like scientism, utilitarianism, and skepticism inform modern methodologies, which have all but destroyed the academic and freeing nature of an authentic education. By 1915, the false notion of “academic freedom” had been formalized by the secular universities and in 1967 by some Catholic universities in the Land O’Lakes Statement.

Blessed John Henry Newman lamented the state of the modern university in 1852 in his landmark work The Idea of a University. He identified the growing tendency to deny “divine agency” and therefore the existence of God the Creator. This was followed by the denial of “moral agency,” a denial of the human soul. The final blow to a philosophical underpinning in education came in the form of a denial of free will, which deepened the modern attack on nature. We find ourselves today in an academic wasteland where the intellectual and moral aspects of human learning are crudely reduced to material determinism and truth is arbitrated by the individual who is encouraged to be a law unto himself.

Joseph Pieper gave a lecture in 1951, which has been made into a small, but invaluable book entitled What Does “Academic” Mean? It gives a very satisfying expression of the meaning of the word academic and exposes how corrupted the modern notion of “academic” had become by the mid-20th century. It also foreshadowed the increasing bankruptcy of the modern university’s academic nature and its increasing absence of things intellectually and morally freeing.

The first defining feature of a proper understanding of an academic setting, as illustrated by Plato’s academy, is that its intrinsic form must necessarily be philosophical. This means it must have a philosophical method, a way of seeing the world. Newman expressed it succinctly when he explained that philosophy is the “science of sciences” and must be the lens through which we see and order all the other sciences. Other sciences are the aspects of reality whereas philosophy is the intellectual endeavor to grasp the whole of reality, not just an aspect of it. As Pieper explains, “philosophical by no means refers to a corpus of teachings or propositions, but rather to a way of looking at life.”

Pieper adds that to be philosophical is having “an attitude towards the world which is only concerned with the fact that things reveal themselves as they are which is what truth actually consists of.” Pieper echoes the Church Doctor St. Hilary who proclaimed that “truth is declarative being!”

Scientism, utilitarianism, and modern outcomes-based methodology are antithetical to a proper understanding of education. These threads that dominate and permeate the modern “academic” terrain also stand in stark opposition to academic freedom. Pieper explains that the academic, philosophical, and theoretical elements are only truly free when they are not bound to any utilitarian goals. He explains that “as soon as the disciplines merely serve to achieve the targets set by large powerful concerns,” the freedom is destroyed.

To apprehend the nature of what is truly there is the beginning of the academic method. The freedom to pursue what necessarily follows the apprehension of real things is to be free to make proper judgments and the ground to begin to reason as free men. This has been utterly obscured by modern notions of academic freedom to such a degree that the schools do not deal in truth, but in ideology.

What is called academic freedom is neither academic nor free in any meaningful sense in our modern schools, and that includes most of our cherished Catholic schools. As Pieper tells us, “An education that is not philosophically based and not shaped on philosophical principles cannot properly be called academic.” The beginning of a healthy response to this growing educational crisis would be to turn towards the Magisterium and away from educational “experts” as we discover how to reform Catholic education.

STEVEN JONATHAN RUMMELSBURG is the writer-in-residence at Holy Spirit Prep in Atlanta where he teaches philosophy and theology. He is on the teacher advisory committee at Sophia Institute for Teachers, a senior fellow at the American Principles Project, and he speaks and writes on matters of faith, culture, and education.

Copyright © 2019 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.