Academic freedom won’t survive if it is defended merely or mainly as a principle. It survives in and because of a bundle of values and practices—including ways of spending time and the pursuit of knowledge without preidentified end—that undergird the institution. It is crucially important for administrators and faculty alike to understand how the shift of the core mission of the university toward preprofessional education has weakened the academic values that have placed scholar and society in tension since the death of Socrates. The AAUP’s founders understood very well that in the protected space of the university, new theories, ideas, facts, and interpretations emerge that can be threatening to people in power. In the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, John Dewey and his colleagues noted that social scientists require protection above those in all other disciplines precisely because their insights into the moral and economic needs of society are likely to be as disturbing as they are transformative.
At the present moment, this point applies to humanistic studies tout court. Close study of languages and social structures, history, ethnic studies, political thought, the history of art, rhetoric, philosophy, archaeology, and more—all these have had and continue to have transformative effects on students and society, advancing democracy, civil rights, indigenous rights, the equitable distribution of wealth, peace movements, and social justice. To immerse oneself in their study is to remove oneself, to a slight or considerable degree, from the almost all-encompassing demand of the market. It is to become aware of diverse modes of thinking and living—a rare experience that, as Dewey said of art, involves “more than placing something on the top of consciousness over what was previously known. It involves reconstruction which may be painful.”
It has never been easy to celebrate these qualities. In conditions of economic and social stress, the difficulty can seem insurmountable. Just as I don’t blame administrators, I don’t blame students for pursuing knowledge that they believe will prepare them for the world of work. But if they continue to avoid liberal arts classrooms, faculty numbers will continue to fall, and the novel, creative thinking historically fostered there, whose loss is mourned in Cuarón’s Children of Men, will fade from institutional life. This inescapable equation is exerting its effect rapidly in some colleges and universities, slowly in others, but it is happening almost everywhere. Department closures and reductions in humanistic course offerings limit scholars’ freedom to produce work that is critical and, in its essence, countercultural.
Joy Connolly, Dialogue across Divides.