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Is Learning (A)Political?

One of our readers sent us the following excerpt from Robert Kimball’s January 31, 2005, post on The New Criterion’s weblog:

Colleges and Universities do not exist to promote free speech. They exist to pursue and teach the truth…. This is not a novel idea. But it is one that Hamilton’s president, Joan Hinde Stewart, has difficulty in wrapping her mind around. In an open letter to the Hamilton community about the controversy, Stewart began with some clichés about Hamilton’s belief that “open-ended and free inquiry is essential to educational growth.” Well, fine. But surely a college president should understand that “open-ended and free inquiry” is one thing, political agitation and proselytizing is another. Our society provides many outlets for the expression of political opinions. Thank God for that. It has also taken care to provide for educational institutions whose purpose is learning, scholarship, and pedagogy. Pace President Stewart, academic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. It is a more limited freedom, designed to nurture intellectual integrity and to protect those engaged in intellectual inquiry from the intrusion of partisan passions.

This statement seems to raise more questions than it answers, such as: Who defines “the truth”? Can pursuing “the truth” be absolutely devoid of “partisan passions”? Can it occur without freedom of expression? How exactly do we define preventable “political agitation and proselytizing”? Isn’t Kimball’s statement itself a political opinion that college and university education should be apolitical? Would his opinion be considered “political agitation”? If Kimball were a professor, should it get him fired?

Furthermore, the statement “[A]cademic freedom is not the same thing as free speech. It is a more limited freedom” is problematic. While academic freedom and free speech aren’t the same thing, they are a packaged deal. Ward Churchill has both the right to free speech about matters of public concern and the right to academic freedom to discuss matters relating to his discipline. This is not at all a limited free speech right. In fact, Churchill’s statements are well within protected speech enhanced by academic freedom, not reduced by it (see FIRE’s letter to the University of Colorado).

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