What is Academic Freedom, Essentials of Academic Freedom


ACADEMIC FREEDOM, is the right of a teacher to teach and of a learner to study without unreasonable interference or restraint.

Academic freedom ranks with freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of worship as an essential characteristic of democratic society.

Essentials of Academic Freedom.

For the teacher, academic freedom has three sides. He must be at liberty to pursue scholarly inquiry to any honest conclusion. He must be free to present to his students his findings and judgments about his field of specialization. Finally, he must be free to publish the results of his research and reflection so that his colleagues and the general public can benefit by and criticize his work. To the extent that a scholar must slant his investigations or twist or suppress his conclusions, the progress of knowledge is slowed. By the mid-20th century, teachers in the United States, Canada, Britain, and many other countries had won recognition of the principle of academic freedom. Debate continued over the application of the principle.

What is Academic Freedom - Essentials of Academic Freedom

For the student, academic freedom includes the right to have honest instruction, the right to form his own conclusions on the basis of his studies, the right to hear and express opinions, and the right to a reasonable voice in deciding what he is to study. College students in the 20th century have considerable liberty to choose courses and have some voice in college affairs through student governments. Following World War II, students in the United States and various countries in Europe and Latin America began to demand a much larger share in making and administering university rules and in planning the curriculum. Such student movements enlarged the meaning of student academic freedom.


Neither students nor teachers can expect academic freedom to be unlimited. The right to exercise any liberty implies the duty to use freedom responsibly. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the U.S. Supreme Court stated that freedom of speech does not imply the right to raise a false alarm of fire in a theater. By the same reasoning, freedom to teach does not give a professor a right to present his views in such a way as to delude his students or colleagues. Freedom used without responsibility becomes license and interferes with the academic freedom of others.

In addition to the limits set by individual responsibility, there are specific checks imposed on academic freedom by society. For example, the laws that regulate speech and publication restrict what a teacher can say or publish. Faculties and institutions make rules to govern the behavior of their members. In general, the rules are much more restrictive in elementary and secondary schools than they are in colleges and universities. Society and the authorities in charge of the schools have taken the attitude that younger, less mature learners need more protection against possibly dangerous teaching than do college students. Also, school teachers have enjoyed less prestige than college professors, who are usually more extensively trained. Students are granted more autonomy as they advance to higher levels of study.

One of the most difficult issues related to academic freedom is the question of limiting out-of-school activities by teachcrs and students. The issue is illustrated by the long-standing custom that American public school teachers stayed out of politics. They did not run for office or take any part in political campaigns. Even college teachers felt pressures to avoid public controversies. In the 20th century, teachers established their right to act as normal citizens in their communities. However, this right is hedged in practice by the expectation that a teacher will always act with awareness of his responsibility as a guide to younger persons. Larger communities usually grant teachers more freedom to live their own lives than do small towns. Another factor is the temper of the times. During a national or international crisis, teachers and students are subject to unusual pressures and restrictions, both in and out of school.

Early History.

The debate on barriers to academic freedom is a theme that can be traced through the history of education from ancient times onward. Much of the debate has involved conflict between the liberal views of teachers and students and the conservatism of established authorities. In antiquity, for example, Socrates was put to death by the Athenian authorities because they believed that his teachings corrupted the minds of youth. In the Middle Ages such noted scholars as Peter Abelard and Marsilius of Padua found themselves in conflict with the church. Some of Abelard’s teachings were condemned as heretical. Suspicion of heresy drove Marsilius, once rector of the University of Paris, to seek refuge in Germany. The Reformation created new sources of conflict. Martin Luther was one of the scholars of this period who became famous for maintaining his own convictions in spite of opposition from the authorities. Pioneers in science also found that their investigations were not welcomed. One of Galileo’s books was banned by the Inquisition. Such repressions did not prevent teachers and students from working—although they might have attained greater heights if they had had more freedom.

The Modern Concept.

The beginning of the modern attitude toward academic freedom—that is, the belief in maximum opportunities for teachers and students—can be traced to the founding of the University of Leiden in Holland in 1575. This institution did not grant complete academic freedom, but the religious and political restrictions on faculty and students were at a minimum. Unfortunately, the record of this university as a center of free inquiry was dimmed by religious restrictions imposed by Calvinist church authorities early in the 17th century.

In the second half of the 17th century the movement toward academic freedom accelerated. In 1667, for example, a model for a free university was proposed in Germany. Baron Bengt Skytte, a Swede, persuaded Frederick William, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, to sponsor an institution for research and instruction of a most liberal design. The faculty was to be interethnic, interreligious, and international and was to work wtth no restrictions except a ban on proselytizing for any religious faith. The university was never established, but the plan served as a guide for later educators.

Another pioneer was Christian Thomasius, who in 1687 introduced the practice of lecturing in German rather than Latin at the University of Leipzig. This innovation, plus his opposition to superstition and to witchcraft trials, led to his hasty departure from the university. However, Thomasius and other dissidents were invited to the liberal university of Halle, founded in 1694.


During the 18th century, academic freedom in Germany became firmly established at the University of Gottingen (founded in 1737). Another milestone for European education was a report issued in 1792 by the marquis de Condorcet, a French scholar. He was inspired by the atmosphere of the French Revolution to demand that education be free from controls by the government, church, and all other outside forces, including public opinion. France, however, did not put these ideas into effect. Napoleon introduced centralization in higher education and other policies that restricted academic freedom.

As one counter to the power of Napoleon, Prussia founded the University of Berlin in 1811. Here the principles of Lehrfreiheit und Lernfreiheit (freedom of teaching and studying) were both formulated and practiced. The classic summation of these principles was made by the rector, Johann Gottlieb Fichte. According to the famous philosopher, a university can achieve its intellectual aims only if it has “complete external freedom, academic freedom in the widest sense.”

Another statement of the ideals behind academic freedom was made by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 when the University of Virginia was founded. He pledged that the new institution would be based “upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind.”

The history of academic freedom in the 19th and 20th centuries is a record of problems and progress. Forces as varied as nationalism, clericalism, conservatism, and radicalism exerted pressures on schools and universities. The effects of such pressures can be shown by a few examples. In Germany, two distinguished linguists and folklorists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, were dismissed from the faculty of the University of Gottingen in 1837 because they opposed the abrogation of the constitution by the king of Hannover. In England, religious qualifîcations for students at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge were not removed until 1871. In England, the United States, and other countries, scholars who supported Darwin’s theory of evolution faced ridicule and even loss of their positions. Far into the 20th century, barriers to teaching Darwinian biology persisted. The famous Scopes trial in 1925 failed to upset a Tennessee law forbidding the teaching of the concept of evolution in the public schools.

In spite of resistance, the campaign for academic freedom progressed. In’the United States the growth of secularism, the example of German universities, and a broadening of social and intellectual outlooks helped the cause of freedom in education. The founding of such organizations as the National Education Association (1857), the American Association of University Professors (1915), the American Federation of Teachers (1916), and the American Civil Liberties Union (1920) gave teachers new aids in establishing and keeping their rights and privileges.

The Loyalty Issue.

International and ideological tensions have stirred up major battles over academic freedom in the 20th century. During World War I some teachers were harassed or even dismissed from their jobs because they were suspected of being disloyal to their countries. During the depression of the 1930’s, when Communism gained some ground in intellectual circles, many state legislatures in the United States passed laws requiring that teachers take loyalty oaths. The National Defense Education Aet of 1958 specifîed loyalty oaths as a condition for federal aid to students. The same condition applied to aid from the National Science Foundation.

Concern for national security in a time of chronic international crisis brought the U.S. Supreme Court into the debate on academic freedom. In Adler v. Board of Education of New York (1952) the court upheld the constitutionality of a law barring public school teachers from advocating the overthrow of the government by unlawful means. The majority of the justices held that no denial of freedom of speech was involved. Justice William O. Douglas, however, wrote a dissenting opinion stating that “when suspicion fills the air and holds scholars in line for fear of their jobs, there can be no exercise of the free intellect.”

Another Supreme Court decision affecting academic freedom was handed down in the case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957). The court reversed a contempt conviction in a state court of a professor who refused to answer questions about his assoçiation with the Progressive party and his lectures at the state university. In Beilan v. Board of Education of Philadelphia (1958) the Supreme Court upheld the right of a public school system to discharge as incompetent a teacher who refused to answer questions about charges of earlier Communist activities. In Barenblatt v. United States (1959) the court ruled that the House Committee on Un-American Activities had the legal power to investigate possibly subversive activities in education. The majority opinion insisted that the court “will always be on the alert against intrusion by Congress into this constitutionally protected domain,” namely, “academic teaching-freedom and its corollary learning-freedom, so essential to the well-being of the Nation.” Some coercion seems to be involved in a congressional inquiry into the activities of teachers and students, but the court held that the public interest superseded individual and academic immunity.

Student Involvement.

Freedom to learn has always been a major part of academic freedom. For centuries, however, major issues in this area involved teachers more than students. Typical conflicts were fought out between faculty and administration, president and trustees, or faculty and state or national government. In the second half of the 20th century, students became increasingly involved in movements that extended the meaning of academic freedom and complicated the problem of defining the bounds of this freedom. In the United States, Latin America, and other countries, students showed that they expected to have a voice in university policy. Some, for example, asked to be allowed to evaluate faculty performance. Many demanded almost complete freedom in social behavior and political action. These demands were backed up by activist tactics, such as sit-in demonstrations and strikes. As a result of student efforts, the scope of student academic freedom expanded enormously in less than a decade.

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