Freedom of the College


THERE have been many disputes about freedom. And there will be many more. It is a matter about which men feel very deeply. It has therefore been argued about more than it has been studied. ’Shall not a man be free to think what he thinks and say what he thinks’? one group demands. ‘What are you going to do with a fellow who has no common sense ?' retorts the other. And on the relations of Liberty and License, especially as both names begin with Li, there have been many passionate pronunciamentos.

We are apparently just entering on another phase of this old conflict. It is presented very commonly in the headlines of our newspapers. ‘ Another professor dismissed. Teaching investigated and condemned. Faculty members protest in vain. Trustees firm.’ The reader is given the impression that a conflict is going on in the colleges, that trustees and professors are arrayed in opposing camps. It is understood that one party is demanding freedom of thought and speech while the other is insisting upon common decency and common sense. And further, it is noted that the two parties find their demands mutually hostile and irreconcilable. Just why freedom and common sense should be irreconcilable does not appear to the casual observer, or perhaps appears only to him. And yet it is very easily taken for granted that they are. And so the issue is formulated. Trustees and professors are in conflict about freedom of thought and speech.

Now if there be such a conflict within the college, it is not to be avoided. It would be well to have it out, and that quickly. I should like, in this paper, to contribute, so far as I may, to the ‘ having it out.’ I do not expect to end the controversy. My purpose is rather to find out whether or not there is one, and if so what it is. Especially I should like to know just what it is that the professor wants and that the trustee is said to be unwilling he should have. What is academic freedom?

In the first place, what kind of a thing is it? Is it a right, or a duty, or an obligation, or a privilege, or a perquisite, or what is it? Is it something which the professor wants for his own private satisfaction? That would make it a perquisite or a privilege. And we should have the very natural question, ‘Why may not other people have the same freedom which the professors claim?’ But the question which we really ask on this plane is just the opposite one. The question is, whether the professor may have the same degree of freedom as other men have; whether, because of his peculiar responsibilities, he ought not to be specially limited in thought and speech. There are, we all know, dangers with professors. There is always the danger that some one will take a professor seriously; and so it may be necessary to take care what he says. And it is also possible that his thinking may carry him along one of the roads that thought travels, that he may really get somewhere else; therefore there may be need of prescribing whither he shall and shall not go. These are dangers which mark him off from the common run of men. And so the question on this level is, to what degree the professor should be denied this privilege of freedom of thought and speech which a democracy normally allows its citizens.

But freedom as a privilege is not fundamental. The duty or obligation to be free is the essential thing. I take it that the community is so related to the college and the college so related to the professor, that the community makes a demand upon the college with regard to the professor. It says, ’I demand of you that for the sake of my welfare you see to it that the study of my scholars and the learning of my children be free.’ And the duty, the obligation, of the professor is to the college just as the obligation of the college is to the community. In order to do its service, he must be free; he is a trickster and a fraud if he is not free. When he speaks of freedom, he is not playing with his own perquisites and possessions; he is facing his master and the commands of his duty are upon him.

The essential principle in the doctrine of academic freedom as a duty may, I think, be stated in this way. Most men, outside our institutions of learning, having the choice between freedom and non-freedom of thought and speech, choose the privilege of the latter. They prefer not to be free. It is for this reason that they demand that the man within the college shall adopt the former. To explain this statement,

I must try to explain what colleges are for. If we can understand this, I think we may get a grip on academic freedom. May I therefore try to describe the mission of the college with regard to human opinions and judgments?

Every one knows, or may know if he stops to think about it, that his opinions, the judgments which he believes, are not very good, are not so true as the^y might be. ’Mine own they are,’ we say, ‘but poor things.’ In the realm of politics, for example, we all have opinions and act upon them, but we know that we do not know very much about politics, and further that, if we did know more, we could make better opinions. And the men who differ from us, as well as those who agree with us, are in like situation. They too are doing each his best, and yet it is not very good. Our judgments upon politics, yours and mine, are rather poor things; they are not very true; for reasons of our own we claim the privilege of holding opinions, of believing them, of acting on them, even though we know that as opinions they are no better intellectually than are we who make them.

There are two ways in which this unsatisfactoriness of our opinions is brought home to us, and each of them seems to me to reveal the need of colleges which are free.

The more obvious bit of evidence about the quality of our opinions is that our neighbors think less highly of them than we do ourselves; in fact, they contradict them. And these contradictions come, not only from our equals in intelligence, but also from our superiors.

I may believe in Social Cooperation, but my neighbor holds fast to Individualism. And on the whole he seems to be as good a mind as I. In other words,

I think that my opinion is true, but just as good a mind as mine thinks it is not.

That makes the chances even that I am wrong. But worse and more disturbing than our equals are our superiors, the better men who differ from us. No matter what opinion we may hold, we know that other minds, better informed and trained than ours, can make a better. And so, however brave a face we put on it, we know that our superiors, the men whose mental fibre is stronger and more delicate, can think their way to better thoughts than ours. I feel sure that this awareness of our ineptitude, this knowledge of our ignorance, is one of the reasons why we build colleges.

The second and more disturbing observation about our beliefs is that of their connection with our interests. Here again, not in a conscious way, but none the less effectively, we seem to have chosen not to be free. Men seem to think by classes, and thoughts to express desires and needs rather than facts. We do not like the story that when the Constitution was made men voted in groups according to the bearing of the votes upon their holdings or lack of holdings in property. And yet the story is told. And in the telling is revealed, not conscious lack of honesty, not conscious putting of private interests before the public good, but rather a blind unconscious bias in human thinking. And in the present day there is no lack of illustrations. Holders of property to-day are very much agreed about the rights of property. And laboring men are on the whole convinced that labor does not get its share and must have more. Germans agree that Germany must have her place out in the sun, and France and England find the moral law demanding that they keep the Germans in their proper place. Even professors sometimes agree-as to the interests they have in common. They are in large agreement concerning college presidents, college trustees, and professorial freedom. They hold the dogma of their class, that members of the class should have more power. And when one leaves his class and joins the presidents, we know the merry farce of changing points of view, of widening experience, of greater insight into many things.

I do not wish to press the point too far. I am not saying that human beliefs are simply selfish desires finding expression in the forms of thought. The man who proves that human thinking is ‘ interested ’ in this sense, proves that his proof is ‘interested,’ and we should ask of him not whether his proof is good or bad, but what he hopes to gain for himself by setting up the proof. Nor am I taking as my own the current popular philosophy which scoffs at ‘absolutes’ and finds the meaning of truth in service to the actual ends of actual men. That doctrine too is rendering doubtful service in these times of stress. But I am only saying this — that as we view our fellows and ourselves, we find ourselves in groups according to our interests, and in those groups we find common beliefs related to those interests. There is a bias in our thinking. We cannot trust ourselves to be impartial. To do our daily work we must be special in our points of view. Unconsciously we use our thoughts as instruments to further our ends. But when we stop to think about it, we hate the special interested point of view; we know that it is not true, not worthy of our deeper selves. And in the seeking for escape from it, we find a second impulse to the building of the colleges, the colleges which shall be free.

If now the college be defined in terms of these two impulses, it is essentially, not accidentally, a place of freedom. It is a place in which the human mind is seeking deliverance from its bondsthe bonds of partial knowledge and selfinterest. It has no hope of fully achieving such freedom, and yet this end defines its work. Men form their opinions from partial knowledge; the college must know, so far as may be known, all that the human mind has thought and learned which bears on these opinions. Men fashion their thoughts according as their interests and activities have moulded and shaped their minds; the college may have no special interests shaping it. It must in this sense stand apart, viewing all interests of men alike with equal eye, and measuring each in terms of every other and the whole. It is a place of knowledge and of criticism.

What then is academic freedom? It is, it seems to me, the very quality of a college. The question whether or not a college is free is meaningless. An institution which is not intellectually free is not a college, whatever else it be. States may be servants of partial insights and partial interests, and so may factories and corporations, and even schools of medicine; but not so colleges. A college is our social and individual striving to escape the bonds which the world’s work would fix upon us. It is the search for freedom from ourselves.


The actual carrying on of the college enterprise brings one to many rather puzzling problems. Even for an individual self-criticism is not an easy task. To do two things at once—’to go about one’s work, planning and acting as if one’s thoughts were true, and yet to know and act as if one’s thoughts were wrong and partial — to do both things at once is hard for busy, single-minded men. It is no wonder that we fail. But it is even harder for an institution like a college to do the task. A college has so many independent parts which do not know each other, which take themselves for granted, which have not stopped to think about themselves, or other parts, or even the college as a whole. Trustees, professors, presidents, departments, graduates, students, donors, outside world are all factors in the situation. Each has its share in making for our people knowledge and selfcriticism. And they have hardly begun to criticize, to understand themselves, to realize the Work they have to do.

But worse than either of these difficulties is the fact that, though the college has compounded its medicines to cure the public mind, the patient does not come for treatment; he does not know that he is ill. We say that colleges are built because men know their ignorance, that is, the ignorance of their fellows, and wish to cure it. But motives are not always clear, even to those who act on them. And I am sure that, in the large, our public does not keenly feel the need of criticism; on the other hand, I am not sure that, if it did, the college is the doctor whom it would choose for diagnosis and prescription.

What shall we do to lure the patient, to get some living forms in which to practice our profession? I see no other way except to hang our shingle out and let it swing in public places. Perhaps to change the figure would give it more attractiveness. ‘ Clearing House for Opinions; Discount on Popular Prejudices; Foreign Exchange’! And if we catch a patient, we must make it clear to him that he is ill, yes, very ill, and that the social mind is ill also, and all his friends. I fear the method is not quite professional. But something must be done to make people understand that colleges are ready to do a piece of work, and that the work is sorely needed in our country and by our generation.

Assuming then that we have caught a patient, may I proceed to tell him just what our methods arc and what they are not, to arouse his hopes, excite his fears, especially to let him know what college freedom is?

And first, lot it bo understood, the college is not simply a school for boys. It is a place to which boys should go because the teachers of men are to be found there, scholars whom men respect and honor as their guides and leaders. No man who cannot lead his peers is fit to teach the younger generation. The education of a boy consists in coming into active contact with a group of minds which have command of human thinking; he learns by feeling how they think, and imitating them. Again, the college has no list of dogmas or doctrines which it seeks to teach. There is no catalogue of things to be believed, nor any list of problems which should not be discussed. I have heard the suggestion made that certain matters are not to be regarded as ‘subjects of reasonable controversy.’ I am sure that for a college no such prohibition can be made. I do not mean that every problem of human life will be discussed by every student all the time. There must be pedagogic common sense in choosing things to think about. But are there matters which are not ‘subjects of reasonable controversy’? I know no other test than this — any matter concerning which reasonable men differ is a subject of reasonable controversy. And if there be such reasonable disagreements, young minds should know about them in proper time.

On the other hand, if there are still other subjects on which all men have the same opinions, there can be little harm in letting younger people know of these agreements. The only genuine pedagogic sin I know is that of dragging our students by the nose to preconceived conclusions, blinding their eyes to paths that lead on this side or that toward truth, yet pretending that we are leading them into the ways of human thought. Such teaching is not honest; and it will find its own reward for those who give as well as those who take it.

I do not mean that there is no place for schools which choose to teach some special doctrines which they think important. Such schools are different from free colleges, not in kind but only in degree. No college, however free, can escape the prepossessions of its background, the mental attitude from which it springs. But in the schools of which I speak, some special conscious limitations are taken on; the school commits itself to teaching this or that as true. Such schools must first of all try to be fair to doctrines other than their own. But they must also deal honestly with those for whose support they ask. They have no right to put a label on and then to act and teach as if the label did not mark them off from others; that is what labels do.

Does the receiving of gifts from private donors or public governments destroy or hamper the freedom of the college? Yes, in some degree. Taking the college world at large, such influences are subtly, or not so subtly, felt. But there is no essential reason w hy they should be present. If they are, some one has failed to understand his task and hence to do it. No college, clearly conceived and honestly administered, would take a gift to which such influence was attached. No college is for sale, and nothing that is for sale, subtilely or obviously, can be a college.

I think that the Association of University Professors, fine as it is in purpose, has tended to increase misapprehension at this point. The Association in its proposals and discussions has sundered the college in two. It has opposed the teachers and the administrators. Trustees and presidents, it seems to say, must further the material interests of the college, must pay the bills, and find the wherewithal to pay them. Professors, on the other hand, have no concern with interests like these; they are the scholars and teachers, interested in the truth. Professors are free, but trustees and presidents well, they must get the money, so perhaps they must give up some measure of their freedom. What does this mean ?

It sometimes seems as if professors said,‘Let presidents and trustees get money as they can; let them make promises to donors or legislators if need be; but we will see that the promises they give are broken; no man can influence us.’ Professors free; trustees and presidents slaves, that seems to be the doctrine. But surely such a doctrine is false and hateful. No college can live half-slave and yet half-free. Professors have no right to freedom unless the college as a whole is free. The freedom of professors is a myth unless it lives within the freedom of the college.

I think that in the large, with very little reservation, the colleges are free, trustees and presidents as well as teachers. Donors and legislators are eager to give to institutions which no man can buy; that is their reason for giving. But public confidence in such freedom is not so easy to secure. Men carry the notions of property and ownership from other fields into the college field; they make a gift into a bargain, and so they fail to understand. The college must explain itself, must make its friends and foes alike perceive that it is one in purpose; honest in dealings, seeking to free men from ignorance and self-interest, seeking to make for men knowledge and self-criticism. It has no other purpose in any part or fragment of its being.

A harder relationship to understand is that of professors and propaganda. How shall men express opinions within the classroom or outside, and yet not make the college seem to be a partisan in public disputes. There are two very different ways in which it might be done. We might arrange that no professor should be a partisan on any public issue; he must remain a scholar, seeing the principles beneath the popular disputes, impartially making all sides clear, and yet not advocating any one of them. Or on the other hand, we might make up a college faculty of many advocates, at least one advocate for every important line of popular thought and impulse, trusting to each to push his cause as strongly as he can. In either case, the college as a whole would remain free and uncommitted. Which is the better plan? I wonder if we need to choose between them.

No one who loves a college can fail to feel the attraction of the former plan. We like to think of scholars as standing apart from common quarrels, as looking deeper into life than common men, as finding the principles that underlie all common controversies. And so they do, and ought to do. And yet they do not by such study escape men’s disagreements; the superficial quarrels reappear down in the lower levels of our thought; scholars are not agreed regarding the issues of our human life. They have their points of view, their attitudes of mind, their working theories, their own beliefs. Shall they be advocates of those beliefs? They cannot help it. But on the other hand, are there no limits to the forms their partisanship may take? I think there are. A man who advocates a view as if there were no other views, who finds the total truth in some mere fragment of an insight which has come to him, who sees and formulates no underlying principles beneath the strife of parties, is no proper college teacher. A college has a right to expect that every one who serves its cause, whatever else he do, shall keep its faith, its partial insight if you like, that truth is broader than a creed and deeper than the theories of any sect or class.

Shall college teachers be advocates or critics? I do not think we are ready to choose as yet. We want both types and are not ready to let either go. Most of our men prefer the impartial rôle; some have the zeal of advocates. And if the scholars keep themselves alive to human situations, and partisans hold fast to academic faith, we need not interfere. We should not like to see our ‘ninety-three professors’ declaring that all our acts are right — right beyond question; nor do we wish our scholars to retire to quiet places, reflecting sadly on the weaknesses of fellow men. One thing we know — whatever individual professors do or think, the college must be impartial; it must not be an advocate; it must urge no cause but its own, the cause of knowledge and self-criticism.

There are, however, two or three remarks which may be made upon the issue just considered.

Should we, in choosing teachers, take account of their opinions? If we are well enough acquainted with their work to pass on their appointments, we cannot well help knowing what they think. And yet we must not take account of it. We might, if we had found ourselves by blind unconscious preference appointing men of our own points of view, seek out opponents of ourselves to keep the balance. But on no other ground could we be justified in choosing a man because of his beliefs.

May teachers be dismissed because they hold and advocate this view or that? Such action would contravene the very spirit and purpose of a college. Professors must be good men, must study well, and teach successfully. If these requirements are met, no question can be raised regarding their opinions. The college has no fear of any opinions. It takes them all and judges them. If this be true, the tenure of the teacher is not that of one who is paid to work as he is told, who may be sent away if those who pay him do not like the work he does. His tenure is rather that of the judge who, by the very nature of the task assigned him, is placed beyond control or punishment by those on whom his judgment must be made.

I think there is a case against the allowing of college presidents to play the rôle of public advocate. So far as teachers are concerned, safety is found in numbers. No one of them can claim to represent the college as a whole. Whatever one of them may say, a dozen of his fellows will be found to take another point of view. But presidents are wont to speak each for his college. Nothing about them is more obvious than just their singularity. And when a president takes his place in sect or party he takes the college with him as no professor can. I have no doubt that in the public mind one president, engaging in propaganda as a partisan, can do more harm in shaking confidence in academic fairness and impartiality than could a hundred teachers if they should storm and rave in every sect and party that t he country knows. And if it should appear that, on the whole, the college presidents are very much alike in mental attitude, are in most cases committed to a single point of view regarding human problems, I think that very rightly the colleges would fail of influence upon the public mind, would lose the public confidence on which the doing of their work depends.


How shall we win and keep that confidence? That is the urgent problem for us and for the people we serve. How shall we teach unless the people listen? How shall they listen unless they know that we can teach and that we will?

Unless a people find, in colleges or elsewhere, some place of criticism, some place where truth is sought, where thought is free, there is no hope for freedom of the people.

The college must teach, and, first of all, must make the people understand what teaching is. How shall we let them know that we arc building knowledge for their use, that we art serving every interest that they have and yet are slaves to none of them, that we will listen to every thought they bring and yet will weigh and value them with thoughts of other men in mind?

There is no other way than this: to study and to teach. And teaching is the attempt to make men free.

Physician, heal thyself!