Academic Freedom in Theory and in Practice


ONCE or twice every year the public hears of differences of opinion between teachers in our collegiate institutions and those who hold the appointing power. The conflict which thus arises is often serious enough to claim a large amount of newspaper discussion. The subjects at issue are as varied as the range of human interests. Sometimes the difference hangs on the method employed in the creation of the world; sometimes on the proper definition of a dollar in the laws of the United States. One man is called to account for his views about the condition of the wicked after death, another for his opinions concerning the reciprocal duties of rich and poor, a third for his teaching as to the stability of organic species, and a fourth for his judgment upon the physiological effects of alcohol. The champions of freedom point out the evils to which we are subject if men are estopped from teaching what they believe to be the truth by those who are in the nature of things less expert in the particular subject of inquiry than is the teacher himself. The champions of authority retort by emphasizing the dangers to good morals which may ensue if freedom has reached a point where it degenerates into license; and they insist that in a school or a college, no less than in any other organization, the trustees are primarily responsible for the prevention of such license.

The outcome of the conflict is generally in favor of the corporation, be it public or private, and against the individual teacher or group of teachers. This is partly due to the corporation’s material advantage in holding the base of supplies ; but it is perhaps even more largely due to its moral advantage in having the practical and tangible side of the argument, as against the theoretical or abstract one. The authority which seeks to suppress freedom of teaching may be right or it may be wrong in what it says, but at any rate it has perfectly intelligible reasons to give. If it believes that the eternal salvation of the pupils will be jeopardized by certain views as to the creation of the world, or if it believes that the commercial prosperity of the country is dependent upon certain theories of political economy, its duty seems to lie plain before it; and the community tends to support it for its steadfastness in thus doing what it believes to be its duty. Against this plain obligation of the authorities the champions of liberty of teaching can only oppose a theory of freedom which is somewhat abstract, and, as popularly stated, somewhat incorrect also.

For the question of academic freedom is not one which stands by itself, or can be settled by itself. The problem of the liberty of teaching connects itself with other problems of civil liberty; and all these problems together reach back into past history, and can be properly analyzed only by historical study. Only by placing them all in their proper relations to one another can we understand either the reasons or the limitations of our system of academic freedom as it exists at the present day. To the modern observer liberty in its various manifestations is neither an abstract right to be assumed, as Rousseau would have assumed it, nor a pernicious phantom to be condemned and exorcised, as Carlyle or Ruskin would have condemned it, but an essential element in orderly progress; not without its dangers and not without its limitations, yet justified on the whole because the necessary combination of progress and order can be better secured by a high degree of individual liberty than in any other fashion. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill and John Morley have successively contributed to the formulation and proof of this idea, until it has become a well-established principle, accepted by the great majority of active thinkers. “The doctrine of liberty,” says Morley, “rests on a faith drawn from the observation of human progress, that though we know wheat to be serviceable and tares to be worthless, yet there are in the great seed-plot of human nature a thousand rudimentary germs, not wheat and not tares, of whose properties we have not had a fair opportunity of assuring ourselves. If you are too eager to pluck up the tares, you are very likely to pluck up with them these untried possibilities of human excellence, and you are, moreover, very likely to injure the growing wheat as well.”

If we go back far enough into the beginnings of history, we find the different forms of authority by which men’s actions are now regulated merging more and more closely into one. What we now call morals is in the earliest times represented by a body of tribal customs, rigidly enforced upon all members of the community by discipline and habit. What we now call law is represented by a system of punishments, rigidly enforced by all members of the tribe against him whom they suspect to be recalcitrant in deed or in thought. What we now call science is represented by a series of myths, giving supernatural reasons for the tribal customs and the fierceness with which any infraction of those customs must be punished. Under such circumstances there is no freedom of action, and — if we may put the matter in Hibernian fashion — even less freedom of thought; for while an action at variance with the customs of the tribe might possibly be treated as an accident and expiated by some atonement short of the death of the offender, independence of thought seems an act of impiety against the gods, deliberate, intentional, and inexpiable.

This view of the origin of law and morals is tolerably familiar. As far as concerns the ancestry of modern science, it may provoke more surprise or dissent. Yet I conceive that it is hardly open to doubt. Not only were the priests the first teachers of anything like an explanation of the universe, but the things which they taught had a certain degree of scientific merit. The theory that some god would destroy the tribe if it did not wash at a particular time was a very crude explanation of an observed fact; but it nevertheless had its merits. It caused the tribe to wash occasionally, — a thing which otherwise it would never have done, — and to an age which judges science by its practical results this is no small achievement. It furnished a theory which tended to prevent disease; and of few modern physiological theories can so much as this be asserted. It recognized the truth which bacteriological science has only just grown up to in the present generation: that the penalty for violation of law was visited not so much upon the individual as upon the whole community. Nay, the very forms in which the explanations were given were perhaps not so far behind those of recent philosophic thought as we to-day fondly imagine. We may laugh at the fire god or the cloud myth as a figment of the imagination; but they were apparently just as real as the caloric of which our grandfathers talked so glibly, and perhaps no more unreal than the electricity of which we to-day hear so much and know so little.

The cardinal fault with this early science was not so much its error as its intolerance. It failed to provide for progress. It claimed to be a revelation which was not only good as far as it went, but prohibitory of all change. The reasons for this intolerance were obvious enough. As Bagehot well says: —

“In early times the quantity of government is much more important than its quality. What you want is a comprehensive rule binding men together, making them do much the same things, telling them what to expect of each other, — fashioning them alike and keeping them so: what this rule is, does not matter so much.” . . . “ All the actions of life are to be submitted to a single rule for a single object, — that gradually created ‘ hereditary drill, ’ which science teaches to be essential, and which the early instinct of men saw to be essential too. That this régime forbids free thought is not an evil, — or rather, though an evil, it is the necessary basis for the greatest good; it is necessary for making the mould of civilization and hardening the soft fibre of early man.” . . . “There is no ‘ limited liability ’ in the political notions of that time; the early tribe or nation is a religious partnership, on which a rash member by a sudden impiety may bring utter ruin. If the state is conceived thus, toleration becomes wicked: a permitted deviation from the transmitted ordinances becomes simple folly, — it is a sacrifice of the happiness of the greatest number; it is allowing one individual, for a moment’s pleasure or a stupid whim, to bring terrible and irretrievable calamity upon all.”

But when this cohesion was once established, it was the next essential step to provide for progress. And it so happened that some of the very means used by the priesthood to strengthen the authority of their teachings gave an opening for new and sometimes better teaching. Mr. Henry Rutgers Marshall, in his articles on the Origin of Religious Expression, has gone far to establish the view that the ceremonials of which ancient worship so largely consists were in fact devised for the purpose of creating a recurrence of that pathological condition of the mind under which supernatural explanations of facts are most readily accepted. A man who is well fed and full blooded tends to look out for his own obvious interests and to disregard the commands which have been placed upon him in the interests of the community. He must therefore be occasionally reduced to a state of fasting, where the supernatural terrors will have more than their ordinary effect. If he is told to do an unpleasant thing because the spirit of his grandfather commands it, he must occasionally be brought back to the condition where he sees, or thinks he sees, the spirit of his grandfather. This is, in brief, the principle on which Marshall explains satisfactorily many of those tribal usages for which Spencer and other previous writers have found it difficult to account. But it is obvious that these same fastings and ceremonies, which thus strengthened the authority of the priesthood, provided also a receptive audience for persons, within that priesthood or outside of it, who might believe themselves possessed of new revelations to communicate. If a man was placed in the condition where he would see the spirit of his grandfather, he was likely to see some other things not dreamed or intended by those who brought him to this state. A time of religious frenzy gave every opportunity for an innovator to say things which at soberer times the people would not have dared to listen to, and which he himself might not have dared to think. A man of oratorical temperament, who at other seasons would have been stoned to death as a blasphemer, might now be welcomed as a prophet. This was the beginning of liberty of teaching. Where the priests represented scientific conservatism, the prophets represented scientific progress. It is needless to say that there was none too much love between priests and prophets. The former would as a rule willingly have exterminated the latter. But over and over again it is related that “they feared the people.” The new word which the prophet had uttered had received such a hearing that there was greater danger to the priestly authority in its suppression than in the unwilling toleration of its continuance. To justify themselves in this toleration, without at the same time encouraging all other men to a similar defiance of their authority, the priests adopted the simple method of treating the prophet as legally irresponsible. They said, in short, that he was crazy; and this explanation was quite readily accepted. Even at the present day, the majority of hard-headed business men believe that poets, professors, and other classes of idealists have a bee in their bonnets ; and if this is true now, when men of these classes are held amenable to the law of the land, much more necessarily was it the case when they were openly proclaimed as madmen and encouraged, if not compelled, to adapt their conduct to the character thus thrust upon them.

But this system, while it prevented absolute stagnation, was a very unsatisfactory means of securing progress. It was perhaps exhibited at its best in the history of Israel, where the prophetic books have given to the world the foundation of its profoundest philosophy of human conduct. Yet even here the fact that the leadership of the progressive element was entrusted to men whom society supposed to be mad, rendered it wholly impossible for that society to defend itself against outside enemies. And here again also, when a prophet arose in the person of Jesus, whose moral philosophy was too practical to be embodied exclusively in a rhapsodic form, the people who had been ready to follow him enthusiastically in any extravagant claims which he might make joined with the priests in his condemnation. For real progress in teaching it was necessary to find a legal basis for quiet and sensible propagation of truth, as distinct from irresponsible and revolutionary deliverances. It was necessary to develop some new system under which the champion of new doctrines could be treated as a sane man without at the same time loosening those bonds of social cohesion which had rested on the general acceptance of the old doctrine.

This possibility was found in the separation of the conceptions of law and morals, which is such an important element in modern civilization.

In the very earliest times, as has already been said, the two are wholly indistinguishable. The customs of the tribe were enforced by the tribe as a whole. Any deviation from them was prevented by a system of terrorism. An act that offended the gods was punished by a sort of lynch law. But as time went on the process of punishment began to be organized and the offenses themselves to be classified. Certain violations of the detail of ceremonial could be expiated without the death or banishment of the offender. Others which constituted an immediate menace to public safety were of necessity avenged more speedily and swiftly. Particularly was this true of violations of military discipline in time of war or when war was imminent. Of such offenses immediate cognizance was taken by the chief of the fighting force, rather than by the high priest of the gods. Even when, as frequently happened, these two functions were united in the same person, the procedure in the one case was different from the other. Out of this system of punishments for offenses prejudicial to discipline there grew up a military law necessary for protection against foreign enemies, and afterward a civil law necessary to secure safety at home, different in its content and in its sanction from that wider body of tribal customs whose exponents were the priests, and whose sanction was found in the divine displeasure upon the tribe which tolerated their violation or their questioning.

Law, in this view, was created by a gradual delegation on the part of the tribe or people of certain parts of the old morality to the military authorities for enforcement. The process was of course a slow one, and it took different forms in different countries. We can see these differences in the history of the nations of antiquity with whose inner workings we are most familiar. In the Jews, as in most other Oriental peoples, it was but slightly developed, — at least, until they came under the influence of Greek, and afterward of Roman civilization. In the Greeks the actual separation of the conception of law and morals was carried very far, but without the development of such an independent system of law as characterized the Roman world, which was strong enough to stand intact when the sanctions of morality were shaken or altered. But whether the separation was slight or considerable, imperfect or complete, it carried with it one possibility which was of great importance for freedom of thought and freedom of teaching. It allowed separate treatment of the actions of men on the one hand, and of their moral and scientific theories on the other. The law was primarily concerned with the act; the theory or intent was of but secondary importance. It therefore became possible for a man to change his theories widely, and come into direct conflict with many of the teachings of the priests and of the more conservative citizens, without violating any law or interfering with public safety. It was not necessary to restrain him or to treat him as insane. He could make his experiments and investigations without jeopardizing the framework of the political structure. Under such circumstances a system of free thought could be tolerated by the authorities, because it strained none of the principles under which they were accustomed to administer the law; and it could be endured complacently by the community, because it did not undermine a social order which was founded on a conception of law and a habit of legal obedience independent of supernatural sanctions. Rome could endure transmutations of thought which Athens could not, because Roman law represented a more coherent system than the law of Athens, and had behind it a discipline which secured a degree of obedience and selfsubordination for which the Athenian state could find no parallel. To sum the matter up in a single word, the separation of law and morals made the system of free thought possible.

How completely this possibility was realized is seen by the conditions which prevailed at Rome during the later republic and early empire. The control of the state over men’s actions was pretty rigid: its tolerance of their opinions was absolutely unbounded. Different religions could exist side by side in the empire, and in Rome itself, without provoking so much as a suspicion of hostility. The persecution of the Christians was not for their religious opinions, but, primarily at any rate, for their habit of holding irresponsible assemblies, of which the Roman law was profoundly jealous, and of enunciating theories of sovereignty which seemed to conflict with that law itself. The same habit of toleration was seen in Europe in the centuries immediately preceding the Reformation. The settlement of the conflicts between Guelph and Ghibelline had left the line of secular and ecclesiastical authority so distinct in politics that a surprising degree of toleration was exercised, not only by the secular authorities, but by the Church itself. It is the custom in some quarters to sneer at this fourteenth-century toleration as the result of moral apathy, and worse than no toleration at all. This is an error. The apathy, as far as it existed, was a bad thing; but the toleration, just as far as it existed, was a good thing, and was in fact the means which enabled the thinkers of the generations following to rise above the levels set by their predecessors. The Reformation, on the other hand, by the violence of the religious wars which it aroused, tended to obliterate the distinction between law and morals, and made not only Catholic and Protestant churches, but Catholic and Protestant sovereigns, for the time being intolerant of that liberty which a few centuries previous would have been taken as a matter of course. This effect made itself felt alike with Papist and Anabaptist and Calvinist, with Jesuit and Cromwellian. Nowhere does this condition with its accompanying results manifest itself more strikingly than in our early New England communities, whose theories indeed provided for the sovereignty of individual judgment, but whose practice rendered the exercise of that judgment illusory or impossible.

But however complete the separation of law and morals may be, the resulting freedom of thought does not necessarily carry with it freedom of teaching. For teaching is more than a theory ; it is an act. It is not a subjective or individual affair, but a course of conduct which creates important social relations and social obligations.

It is necessary to dwell on this point, because much of the popular discussion treats freedom of teaching and freedom of thought as synonymous. In many of the cases which come up at the present day, a restriction on the liberty of the instructor is regarded as a corresponding violation of liberty of thought. The reason for this is not far to seek. In the ages which have immediately preceded our own the actual restraints which were placed upon the teacher were based upon the broad ground of religious opinion rather than on the narrower and more concrete ground of social expediency. They were, in general, restraints imposed by the church rather than by the state. Galileo was forbidden to teach that the earth revolved around the sun because it was considered wrong for him to think that the earth revolved around the sun. Deny liberty of thought and you deny liberty of teaching as a matter of course. But it does not follow, because you approve of liberty of thought, that you thereby sanction a corresponding liberty of teaching, even among teachers of the highest grade. The expediency of free thought can be settled by broad generalizations from human history; the expediency of teaching some of these thoughts in the school can only be decided by a careful examination of the circumstances of each particular case.

The first instance on record in which the question of liberty of teaching was made the subject of an extended legal inquiry was that of Socrates, reported at length, though probably with a somewhat partisan coloring, in the Apology of Plato. The case is in many of its aspects an exceedingly modern one, and illustrates the principle, so often emphasized by men like Dr. Arnold or Lord Macaulay, of the essential nearness of the ancient Athenian to the Englishman or American of the nineteenth century.

As frequently happens even at the present day when these questions are pushed to an extreme, the occasion of the trial appears to have been a political one. Socrates was disliked by the group then dominant in Athenian politics, and was made a victim of this dislike. But the actual indictment against him was apparently based on two distinct grounds: that of impiety, in that he was said to contemn the old gods and substitute a new demonism of his own; and that of corrupting the youth who came under his influence. Although he was finally convicted of the former charge, the really active discussion hinged about the latter. Two things were urged against him in this connection : the habit of analytical inquiry, which destroyed the old beliefs through asking more or less sophistical questions, and the character of his disciples themselves, whose social and political careers, notably that of Alcibiades, showed in some instances a sad falling off from the old virtues of faith and patriotism. Whatever we may think of the decision actually rendered, — and in judging this it is to be remembered that only partisan reports have reached us, — there can be no question that the accusers of Socrates had at least an arguable case. Alcibiades, for the time being the most noted pupil of Socrates, had been a distinctly bad man. In the life and death struggle in which his country had been engaged with the Lacedæmonians he, from motives of personal pique, had not only deserted to the enemy, but had given that enemy the suggestion which enabled it to carry the conflict to a conclusion which had deprived Athens of its power and threatened the city itself with destruction. His tardy return to the side of his native country did not suffice to prevent this disaster. It simply showed that he was ready to serve one side or the other, as selfish interest might demand. Other pupils of Socrates who had gone into politics, — Critias for instance, — though falling short of the conspicuous demerit of Alcibiades, yet stood in distinctly bad odor with many of their fellow countrymen. More than this : it might well be urged that the selfish course of conduct of these men was the result of the very teachings which Socrates had inculcated — to rely on their own reason, to question all authority, to look to enlightened selfishness as the only motive for right action, to despise all who could not render an analyzed reason for their beliefs. This evil was not confined to individual students, nor did it stop with the mere rejecting of beliefs. In the wholesale destruction of the Hermae the Athenian student body committed an act of wanton sacrilege, to the detriment of art and civic duty which they should have respected, even if they cared not for what the images represented to the older generation. These were incidents of the new scientific method. We may well believe that Socrates himself was a good man, and that the results of his teachings, as exemplified in his own person, stopped short of the effects which they showed in some of his light-headed disciples. Yet even on the evidence of his favorite pupils, the fact stands out that he took inadequate care of his family, was given to somewhat notorious indulgence in drink, and, in short, was very far from the type of respectability which would have been necessary to offset the public dislike of an Alcibiades, or even of a Critias. To those who deemed conduct of more importance than knowledge, and who were not willing to abandon a belief because they could not answer successfully the sometimes flippant questionings concerning the grounds for holding it, such a man might well seem a dangerous character.

And what are the lines on which Socrates replies’? Concerning the badness of his disciples, he simply says that he has no disciples. He teaches what it is given to him to teach; any one may come and hear him. If these individual youth are harmed thereby, why do not their natural guardians step in and protest ? Why are they not called as witnesses against him ? And concerning the general objections as to the influence of his philosophy, he makes answer that a worse man cannot harm a better; that if it be true that his teachings represent a lowering of moral standards, the very excellence of that which he attacks will preserve it from contamination.

The first thing which will strike a modern reader of this reply of Socrates is that it is a defense of freedom of thought rather than of freedom of teaching. In the case of a skillful instructor, dealing with men younger than himself, it is false to say that the worse cannot harm the better. The conflict is not on even terms. His experience gives him a power which they do not possess the means of resisting. And if such a teacher attaches to himself a group of pupils, it is nonsense for him to say that he has no disciples. That which is tolerated by the law when it takes the form of individual thought, or even of casual discussion, may become a menace to society when it is made the subject of systematic communication to the young.

Under these circumstances, with the flagrant misconduct of one of his favorite pupils and the serious lawlessness of many of the others fresh in their minds, it is perhaps hardly to be wondered that the verdict of the Athenian jury should have gone against the innovator. He had failed to meet the practical issue which was raised against him ; and just as many a modern discoverer under similar circumstances is condemned to lose his post, so Socrates was condemned to lose his life. Yet when asked to propose, as was the wont in Athenian courts, some milder alternative sentence, which there seems little doubt that his judges would have been glad to adopt in lieu of inflicting the death penalty, he rises to the height of the occasion and grasps in its full significance a point which he has hitherto fallen short of apprehending. What the authorities shall do to him if they do not kill him, is the question; and his answer is, that they shall maintain him at public expense in the Prytaneum as a benefactor of the state. As a piece of legal tactics, nothing could be more fatal than this. It served to consolidate against him the adverse majority, and even to turn to the other side some who had originally voted in his favor, so that the final death sentence was passed by a majority somewhat larger than that which had first decreed his conviction. Yet from the standpoint of accurate analysis and of profound social philosophy his alternative was justly framed, — framed to apply to the case of every radical freethinker who undertakes to teach views which loosen the cohesion on which the old order is based. To a large part of the more susceptible youth who came under his influence, whether light-minded or reckless or calculatingly selfish, the effect of teaching which loosened the bond of tradition was for the moment a menace to social order. It is only in later generations, when the methods and traditions which Socrates impugned have crumbled to dust, while the strength of the philosophy which he inspired in a few of his best pupils continues to have its power over the world, that his great service stands out clear. He has been at once a corrupter of the youth and a benefactor of the human race. For the one he deserves banishment or death; for the other, public maintenance and honor. He has played for a coronet or a scaffold. One at least he has earned, — perhaps both.

Not to all teachers is such measure of opportunity given as fell to the lot of Socrates. Not for all are the prizes so high, the hazards so treacherous. The intellectual mobility of the Athenian youth, which gave the principles of Socrates such a ready hearing and rapid propagation, rendered his pupils exceptionally liable to make a bad use of the habits which he inculcated — to despise piety no less than the shams which had grown up about it, and to disobey the laws as soon as the religious sanctions for those laws were weakened. At Rome the progress was less rapid, but the danger was also less acute. Not only were the minds of the Roman youth slower than those of the Athenians, but the system of Roman law was strong enough to command obedience by the weight of its own authority and make the republic comparatively safe against the results of theoretical speculation. And thus it happened that the philosophers at Rome, though hated by conservatives like Cato with a hatred no less deadly than that of the most recalcitrant Greek in the days of Socrates, were nevertheless allowed, with but brief intervals of molestation, to pursue their teachings in peace. The modern world has fallen heir to the system of Roman law and its results. It has fallen heir also, in general, to the Roman slowness rather than to the Greek agility of thought.

Yet in all countries and conditions, even down to the present day, the antithesis between the duty of the discoverer who would find new truth and the duty of the teacher who would consider his country’s safety remains a stumbling-block; less perilous, perhaps, but no less unavoidable than in the days of Socrates. Can we so order our institutions that this antithesis shall be less sharply felt, this stumbling-block less obnoxious ?

In the field of politics we have gone far toward removing the corresponding difficulty which once existed, when all institutional reform carried with it, or at any rate seemed to carry with it, the danger of revolution. We have learned to draw the line between the group of actions which Mill characterized as selfregarding, and another group which more immediately concerns the safety or interest of others. By permitting liberty in the former field and restricting it in the latter, we seem to have secured the advantages of freedom without exposing ourselves to the worse dangers. We have combined the maximum of progress with the minimum of revolution. But in educational matters we have not yet learned to draw this line. We have not learned to separate the rights of the discoverer from the duties of the teacher, or to secure the advantages of freedom without the dangers. Nay, that very progress of legal conservatism which lessens the teacher’s dangers in one direction binds him by closer shackles in another, and renders his conflict of duties more perplexing. The establishment of a well-ordered legal system, which gives the teacher permanent position and recognition in the state, tends to make him in fact, if not in name, a part of the public service, engaged in preparing others for that service ; and it brings him under a contractual relation with authorities, public or private, who pay him for his teaching and conceive that they have the right to say what he shall teach.

An account of some of the circumstances which have shaped this relation and the consequences which have arisen therefrom will be given in another article.

Arthur Twining Hadley.