Battle in Print: No academic freedom or no ideas?

Dennis Hayes, 15 November 2007

Freedom of academic expression is a precondition for developing new ideas, argues Dennis Hayes

The launch of the Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) statement of academic freedom (available at www.afaf.org.uk) led to some interesting debates. The most curious responses came from a small number of individuals who were reluctant to sign. All of these had written books that had made an impact on a wider public by saying something interesting and different. In this way they stood out from most academics, who typically write for a narrow audience of fellow professionals. Those that refused to sign insisted the real problem the academy faced was not a loss of academic freedom but the fact that ‘There Are No Ideas’ (TANI).

At first glance the TANI claim seems irrelevant. It is simply a separate issue. Those academics that responded in this way may as well have said: ‘We don’t want to talk about the issue of academic freedom; we want to talk about the paucity of original ideas in the academy’. At best this statement could be taken as a reflection of their ignorance, or indifference, towards a whole range of contemporary academic concerns. In this respect it was perhaps unsurprising. Too many university lecturers are narrowly interested in their own research and take little or no interest in matters that affect the wider academy. The majority of academics who made the TANI claim did not appear to have read the parts of the Times Higher Education Supplement where these issues have been discussed. Here there has been extensive coverage of academics whose freedom has been threatened. The evidence is archived for all to see.

The TANI position perhaps expresses little more than a narrowness of interest. Still, it is illuminating to see if something more can be extracted from the TANI claim. One way of doing this is to see if we can connect the two key statements that characterise the ‘opposing’ AFAF and TANI positions.

The first proposition draws on the AFAF statement and the preamble to it:

1) Academic freedom is harder than ever to defend and we therefore need to robustly restate its importance.

The second is a summary of reasoning behind the TANI refusal:

2) The most important issue is the absence of ideas in the academy.

In my view it is in fact quite possible to support both propositions. However, supporters of the TANI claim hold the first proposition to be false. The substance of this negation needs to be addressed before considering the relation between 2) and 1).

Often those who say that 1) is not an issue are sanguine. They think that for the most part academics are free to express their ideas, in spite of the occasional censuring of lecturers who are often right-wing or reactionary, and who espouse opinions that people generally find objectionable, such as Frank Ellis at Leeds, or David Coleman at Oxford. There is a certain naivety in this view. Typically it is expressed by academics who are simply unaware of the political restrictions on academic freedom in whole subject areas and the long list of academics who have been threatened, silenced or sacked. Perhaps it is simply a case of bluff. Perhaps advocates of the TANI position are prepared to tolerate the silencing of views they themselves find offensive, providing their own freedoms are not curtailed. But perhaps we ought to think the best of them and leave them merely ignorant. Ignorance, after all, is academic bliss.

Of course the empirical case has to be made that there are increasing restrictions on academic freedom, but part of that case is won by pointing out how academics are increasingly ignorant of such restrictions. The fact of academic ignorance helps to explain why it is ‘harder than ever to defend’ academic freedom. A colleague of mine, for example, recently explained that ‘I have never felt in over 20 years researching and writing that my academic freedom was restricted’. Usually statements such as these are made by those who find themselves working in subject areas or fields that are largely free from restriction. There is no doubt that some subjects have a certain amount of freedom, and for those working in them an approach of ‘heads in the sand’ seems to be the order of the day. After all, academics studying subjects such as ancient history or literature do not have to promote government values to get financial support.

In many other areas, however, such as cultural and media studies, but above all in education, this is not the case.  Funding for educational research often carries with it New Labour’s political values. In education research, everyday teaching, discussion and debate are all structured around the objectives of policy initiatives such as ‘Every Child Matters’ and ‘Widening Participation in Higher Education’. Associated notions of emotional wellbeing, inclusion and engagement permeate policy, practice and research. Teachers are habitually conservative and, along with most educationalists, they do not even recognise that their uncritical support of government policies is a threat to academic freedom. This is an appalling situation given that this field of knowledge forms the foundation of the professional training of teachers, who will in turn influence and perhaps determine the attitudes and perspectives of future generations of children. Academic compliance is indeed ignorant bliss.

Ignorance and compliance are certainly features of the contemporary academic mindset, but they are merely contingent to the TANI claim. They merely provide an explanation and, perhaps, an excuse for academics that unhesitatingly deny 1). The assertion of 2), if we put aside these contingent matters, along with any reference to the simple arrogance of some who adopt the TANI position, still requires fleshing out in more detail. The extended TANI argument, if I unpack it correctly from those who have put it, goes like this:

There is a logical, or even a causal, connection between original ideas and academic freedom. If there are no original ideas then academic freedom is otiose. Academic freedom seems to be an issue because, in a situation where the majority of academics have nothing to say, it is only eccentrics who say extreme things, and when they get put down they whinge about the loss of their ‘academic freedom’. Who wants to be associated with them? If there was a more vibrant situation in which more academics put forward original ideas that had an impact on the academy and the wider world, then these eccentrics would find their nonsense entirely marginalised, and academic freedom would flourish in a confident academy made up of thinkers, not self-declared victims.


This sounds very promising: just start thinking new ideas and all will be well in the academy! It is possible to have some sympathy with this viewpoint. Indeed, it would be nice to suggest to the bureaucrats of the academic world that they drop the disastrous Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) and simply say instead: ‘Let’s have some new ideas’. Nothing would result except institutional panic. But however pleasing, perhaps smugly pleasing to some, the TANI rhetoric is, it is entirely misleading.

The TANI argument reverses the true direction of causality. New ideas do not spring up from nowhere into the heads of individual thinkers, but arise in institutions in which there is academic freedom. What we call ‘academic freedom’ is the fullest expression of freedom of speech. It exists in institutions where people can go beyond received opinion and research and can test their views by subjecting them to vigorous criticism and open debate by their peers. AFAF characterises academic freedom as the ‘responsibility to speak your mind and challenge conventional wisdom’.

Without the fullest exercise of that responsibility there can be no ‘new ideas’. Academic freedom is, therefore, the prerequisite to original thought. The lack of ideas in the academy is a result of the demise of academic freedom, not its cause. Being blind to restrictions on freedom of thought is understandable at the present time. But the logic of the TANI position, which makes academic freedom a consequence of new ideas, is not. It is just a bad argument for not supporting academic freedom.

Author

Dr Dennis Hayes is the head of the Centre for Professional Learning, Canterbury Christ Church University, as well as a ‘Backchat’ columnist for FE Focus in the Times Educational Supplement, joint president of the University and College Union, chair of SCETT, and one of the founders of Academics for Academic Freedom. He is currently researching the state of academic freedom in new (post-1992) and old universities.

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