The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass

The Department of Psychology

"Academic Freedom"
Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.

William W. Brickman and Sidney Hook

The following article was included, in part, in the fall edition of The Looking Glass. It is included in this issue in its entirety. - Editor.

Academic Freedom, right of teachers and research workers, particularly in colleges and universities, to investigate their respective fields of knowledge and express their views without fear of restraint or dismissal from office. The right rests on the assumption that open and free inquiry within a teacher's or researcher's field of study is essential to the pursuit of knowledge and to the performance of his or her proper educational function. At present this right is observed generally in countries in which education is regarded as a means not only of inculcating established views but also of enlarging the existing body of knowledge. The concept of academic freedom implies also that tenure of office depends primarily on the competence of teachers in their fields and on their acceptance of certain standards of professional integrity rather than on extraneous considerations such as political or religious beliefs or affiliations.


The concept and practice of academic freedom, as recognized presently in Western civilization, date roughly from the 17th century. Although academic freedom existed in universities during the Middle Ages, it signified at that time certain juristic rights, for example, the right of autonomy and of civil or ecclesiastical protection enjoyed by the several guilds that constituted a studium generale, or universitas (COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES). Before the 17th century, intellectual activities at universities were circumscribed largely by theological considerations, and opinions or conclusions that conflicted with religious doctrines were likely to be condemned as heretical. In the late 17th century the work of such men as the English philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes helped pave the way for academic freedom in the modern sense. Their writings demonstrated the need for unlimited inquiry in the sciences and for a general approach to learning unimpeded by preconceptions of any kind. Neither Locke nor Hobbes, however, defended unlimited academic freedom. The German universities of Halle and Göttingen, founded in 1694 and 1737, respectively, were the first European universities to offer broad academic freedom, with few lapses, from their inception. The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, introduced the doctrine of Lehr- und Lernfreiheit ("freedom to teach and study") and helped to strengthen Germany's position as the leader of academic freedom in the 19th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, universities in Western Europe, Great Britain, and the United States enjoyed increasing academic freedom as acceptance of the experimental methods of the sciences became more widespread and as control of institutions by religious denominations became less rigorous. In Great Britain, however, religious tests for graduation, fellowships, and teaching positions were not abolished until late in the 19th century.


During the first half of the 20th century academic freedom was recognized broadly in most Western countries. However, infringements of the right increased as totalitarianism emerged in various countries, notably in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Educators in Italy were forced to pledge support to the Fascist regime. Similar restrictions, including the teaching of racist theories in some fields, were enforced in German universities under national socialism. In the Soviet Union academic freedom was limited by the necessity of making all instruction and research conform to particular Communist doctrines in every field of learning. From time to time the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party laid down decrees establishing the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint in various academic disciplines.

Infringements of academic freedom also occurred in the United States in the 20th century. A notable example was the Scopes trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925. A high school teacher was accused and convicted of violating a state law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in the public schools (FUNDAMENTALISM). This legislation was repealed in 1967.

After World War II fear was widespread that members of the Communist party had infiltrated the field of education, and some educators were accused of Communist party membership or of being under Communist party discipline. A number of teachers so accused were dismissed on the ground that their official instructions as party members required them to use their teaching positions for purposes of Communist indoctrination, and that they were consequently guilty of violating professional ethics. In the early 1950s, largely because of congressional investigations of communism in the U.S., many institutions of higher learning adopted regulations requiring loyalty oaths from members of their faculties. Some of these oaths, insofar as they were required only of teachers, were declared unconstitutional in some state courts. However, the right of the United States Congress to question teachers about their membership in the Communist party was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. All professional associations of teachers and administrators, including the National Education Association, the American Association of Colleges, and the American Association of University Professors, are opposed to special loyalty oaths and to all violations of academic freedom.

Current Issues and Trends

The 1960s and early 1970s were marked by protest and violence on college campuses over United States involvement in the war in Vietnam. In some places professors were dismissed or arrested for protesting American participation in the war. This turmoil reached a tragic climax in 1970 with the killing of several students during campus demonstrations. In the long run, however, these disturbances led to a broad recognition of the legitimate concerns of students about the quality of higher education, and of the responsibility of universities, rather than the public or the government, to maintain essential academic order. By 1973, when U.S. troops were withdrawn from Vietnam, a general growth in higher education was under way. Significant increases in enrollments and expansion of faculties, as well as a broadening of the makeup of both student and faculty populations, contributed to a vast enrichment of the academic curriculum, to increasing faculty control over the content of programs, and, overall, to the enhancement of the freedom to teach and to learn in colleges and universities.

Beginning in the early 1970s in the United States (and somewhat later in other countries such as Canada and Great Britain), however, institutions of higher education were faced with serious financial problems. Steps taken to deal with these difficulties also took a toll on academic freedom. For example, proliferation of irregular faculty appointments, intended to save money, created a virtual underclass of teachers lacking the employment security generally considered necessary for the exercise of academic freedom.

Threats to and violations of academic freedom continued in the 1980s. The U.S. government, in the name of national security, imposed severe restraints on the dissemination of research results. The influence of resurgent religious conservatism was felt in some areas in efforts to introduce religious teachings in elementary and secondary schools, and in limits on free expression at church-affiliated colleges and universities. In many other nations (among them, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Poland, and China) educators whose teachings were objectionable to the government were sometimes dismissed, harassed, or imprisoned.


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