More than 850 years ago, the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Frederick Barbarossa, issued the Authentica habita, granting imperial protection for traveling scholars. This seminal document ensured that research and scholarship could develop throughout the empire independent of government interference, and shielded scholars from reprisal for their academic endeavors. These concepts, the foundation for what we now refer to as “academic freedom,” have, over the centuries, enabled some of the most significant advances in the history of humankind.
As chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, I work with my colleagues in an environment envied by others. Through the inventiveness of trial and error, the exchange of ideas, peer critique, heated debate, and sometimes even ridicule, we put ourselves out there, focused on our research and scholarly pursuits. Without the freedom to experiment, to fail, to persuasively defend our work, we would not learn, and then improve, and eventually succeed. Without this freedom, we would not be able to pass on to our students the importance of pursuing the truth.”
All this is good, and well said, but the invocation of the Authentica habita is perhaps misplaced. For the purpose of that document was to protect scholars from anger or extortion by extra-academic forces, especially local political authorities across the Empire, whereas the most common threats to academic freedom today come from academics. Whenever an academic these days is threatened with serious personal or professional repercussions for articulating unapproved ideas, you can be pretty sure that the call is coming from inside the house.
So if you, fellow academic, think that justice requires that you police, fiercely, untenured assistant professors of philosophy who make arguments that read directly out of the Progressive Prayer Book but stumble over one phrase: fine. Knock yourself out. But don’t expect anyone else to stand up, ever, for the principles that Frederick Barbarossa stood up for. And under the category “anyone else” I would specifically encourage you to remember local, state, and national legislatures, students, donors, and trustees.
I have beaten this drum over and over again in the past decade, so why not one more time? — People who think like you won’t always be in charge. This is a lesson that the Left seems especially incapable of learning, I think because of its deep-seated belief in the inevitability of progress, a belief that is belied by even the briefest inspection of Washington D.C. You, and people you want to support, may well pay in the future for every victory lap you take today.
But there's another problem here, one that operates in a different dimension — not the dimension of employment or prestige, but rather that of intellectual exploration itself. Some years ago, in a brilliant essay called "Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline," Bernard Williams wrote of
the well known and highly typical style of many texts in analytic philosophy which seeks precision by total mind control, through issuing continuous and rigid interpretative directions. In a way that will be familiar to any reader of analytic philosophy, and is only too familiar to all of us who perpetrate it, this style tries to remove in advance every conceivable misunderstanding or misinterpretation or objection, including those that would occur only to the malicious or the clinically literal-minded.
But we now live in an academic world increasingly ruled by the malicious and the clinically literal-minded. They occupy the stage and issue their dictates, and get less and less resistance to any ukase they choose to promulgate. This leads to an environment which, by analogy to what Williams calls "the teaching of philosophy by eristic argument," "tends to implant in philosophers an intimidatingly nit-picking superego, a blend of their most impressive teachers and their most competitive colleagues, which guides their writing by means of constant anticipations of guilt and shame." With increasingly frequency, this is what academic thought and academic discourse are driven by: constant anticipations of guilt and shame. Which is, needless to say, no recipe for intellectual creativity and genuine ambition.