The Importance of Academic Freedom
Truth—and the unrelenting pursuit of it—is an elevating human endeavor that, when done properly, leads to deep satisfaction. From a biblical standpoint, the quest for knowledge is a profoundly spiritual exercise. After all, Jesus declared that he is the truth. God delights in truth, and his word is truth. Thus, the search for truth is inseparable from the search for God.
Universities operate best when they create an environment of free inquiry, granting students an opportunity to engage in civilized debate, exposing them to a variety of viewpoints, and allowing different beliefs to compete freely in the marketplace of ideas. Ideally, academic freedom of this sort enables truth to prevail, simply by virtue of its overwhelming merit. Students who come to an understanding of this truth are able to apply it to their lives, attain a certain degree of self-mastery, and contribute to the common good.
But, without freedom of speech, truth is silenced and marginalized by a domineering majority. Without academic freedom, intellectual inquiry is halted, disrupted, and corrupted. Education becomes indoctrination, and thinking “correctly”—that is, according to university standards—about politics, race, and sexuality becomes more desirable than thinking clearly and independently. In such an environment, students are no longer free to grasp truth but are enslaved to the creed of the prevailing powerbrokers.
The university has historically been the place where individuals could safely investigate truth claims and develop their critical thinking skills. But an increasing number of college seniors (30 percent according to a 2010 study) are reporting that they feel unsafe holding unpopular positions. Greg Lukianoff, President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, asks, “How can it be that at the place where speech should be the most free, the university, young people fear merely holding—to say nothing of actually expressing—unpopular opinions? … In the most extensive study yet conducted of campus speech codes … 62 percent of America’s top colleges maintain serious restrictions on written and verbal expression, restrictions that violate First Amendment protections.”
In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), the Supreme Court said that “teachers and students must always remain free to inquire … otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.” But, as the following two examples will show, academic freedom in our country is being restricted considerably, and the pursuit of truth is being hampered as a result.
Two Cases in Which Academic Freedom Has Been Violated
1) Stanford pro-marriage event decried and defunded
Last week, an event titled “Communicating Values: Marriage, Family, and Media” was denounced as hate speech. Subsequently, the Stanford Anscombe Society, the group planning to host the conference, was denied funding by the Stanford Graduate Student Council. The purpose of the conference was simply to promote civil discourse about the importance of marriage, family, and sexual integrity. Yet, scores of students, most of whom were organized by the queer graduate group GradQ, vehemently opposed the supposed anti-LGBT content of the scheduled event. Left without funding from either the Graduate Student Council or the Undergraduate Senate, the pro-family group has been forced to look elsewhere for donations.
2) Professor and Summit speaker defends his first amendment rights in court
This week in North Carolina, Dr. Mike Adams, a frequent Summit speaker, is in court, defending his first amendment rights. In 2007, he was denied promotion by his employer, UNC-Wilmington, based on their disapproval of his conservative social and political views.
Dr. Adams, who was first hired as assistant professor in 1993 and then promoted to associate professor in 1998, was an atheist before he converted to Christianity in 2000. Since that time, Dr. Adams has written numerous columns on a variety of topics—campus culture, feminism, abortion, religion, morality—that reflect his biblical worldview.
Seven years after being denied promotion to full professor (despite his prolific scholarly output and numerous teaching awards, including UNCW Faculty Member of the Year), Dr. Adams may finally be vindicated and recognized as a victim of discrimination.
One of Dr. Adams’ attorneys, Travis Barham, says, “Universities are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, not a place where professors face retaliation for having a different view than university officials. … Disagreeing with an accomplished professor’s religious and political views is no grounds for denying him a promotion.”
Like Christ, we ought to testify to the truth (John 18:37-38)
Pilate said, “So you are a king?”
Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked.
A life based on falsehood is a life bound by the most restrictive and oppressive shackles. In order to deliver us from the burdens imposed by mistaken notions of reality, Jesus came to testify to the truth that sets human beings free—free to flourish, free to love, free to live as divine image-bearers reflecting the rationality and the creativity of the life-giving God.
While on trial, Jesus was pulled aside by Pontius Pilate. In an especially poignant exchange, Jesus says he came to this earth precisely to testify to the truth. In response, a hardheaded Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?”
Pilate’s question was—at one time—the basis of liberal arts education. And with good reason, since seeking and finding truth is the primary prerequisite of genuine freedom.
In order to be truly free, we must be free from unreality, falsehood, and self-delusion. Someone who drifts through life thinking she is a poached egg, a dog, or a plant will not act according to her true nature and, as a result, will never maximize her extraordinary human potential. Someone who believes he is a cosmic accident, formed by chance and driven solely by passions and survival instincts, will neither grasp the inherent dignity of man nor fulfill God’s greatest commandments.
He who does not know God cannot love God. And he who does not know the true nature of man cannot fully love man, but only a distorted image of him that undermines his design, his value, and his purpose.
Jesus says that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind (Matt. 22:37-38). Therefore, academic pursuits belong right next to personal devotion, public worship, and church involvement as activities that are pleasing to God. When the universities that were once sanctuaries for the development of the mind begin to silence truth, Christians, like Dr. Mike Adams, must work to prevent further encroachments on academic freedom.
Dr. Adams says, “I hope that many conservatives in academia will reconsider their decision to remain passive in the campus culture wars. Many believe they cannot win. That is certainly true if they refuse to fight.”
Where the truth is freely spoken, it easily wins out. The answer stares the questioner in the face, just as Jesus stared at Pilate. Good education merely opens our eyes to what’s already in front of us. Dr. Quentin Smith, a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University, writes that theist philosophers who engage in a free and fair debate with naturalist philosophers on the rationality of faith have “the upper hand in every single argument or debate.”
The only way truth loses out is when it is suppressed. In order to fully and effectively testify to the truth, Christians have a responsibility to defend their freedom of speech, their freedom of religion, and their academic freedom, or else we will be prevented from making disciples of all nations and teaching them the words of Jesus, which are the words of God and the words of truth.