In their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt explore the recent explosion of anxiety and depression experienced by young people in many of the wealthier countries of the world.
Lukianoff and Haidt lay the blame on “three great untruths” that, they believe, have taken hold in these societies, one of which – in an inversion of Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous maxim – is, “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker”.
By this they mean that our society has become so risk-averse that many young people have grown up without experiencing the psychological strengthening that comes with suffering setbacks and overcoming difficulties.
Among the chief culprits for this over-protective society, argue Lukianoff and Haidt, are universities, which have promulgated the notion that even mere exposure to ideas with which one disagrees can be dangerous to one’s mental health.
This is, in fact, precisely the opposite of what universities are supposed to do. In addition to teaching the knowledge associated with specific academic disciplines, it is the mission of universities to prepare students to think critically.
Sadly this is becoming more common in NZ, with some universities saying that “danger” to mental health will be used as a factor in deciding who is allowed to speak on campus.
Critical thinking requires us to engage with ideas we find disagreeable, difficult and even offensive, and to learn to bring to bear reason and evidence, rather than emotion, when we respond to them. One of the core principles that have historically enabled universities to fulfil this mission is academic freedom.
New Zealand’s Education and Training Act (2020) enshrines “the freedom of academic staff and students, within the law, to question and test received wisdom, to put forward new ideas, and to state controversial or unpopular opinions”.
Thus, the Act recognises that the expression of unpopular opinions – which, almost by definition, will be deemed offensive by some – must be allowed, if universities are to fulfil their mission to advance knowledge. Members of the academic community must accept that universities are venues for robust debate, which will inevitably sometimes cause upset or offence.
This is a key point. The Act explicitly defines academic freedom as including controversial and unpopular opinion. Such opinions are by their nature always offensive to someone. I find defences of communism highly offensive as it is an ideology that has killed tens of millions. But I don’t advocate banning Marxists from campus (which would mean a lot fewer lecturers 🙂 )
Well-reasoned criticism of the arguments raised by the Listener seven would, of course, be entirely legitimate and firmly in keeping with academic freedom. However, the personalised attacks on them from several quarters and the action by the Royal Society – both of which are likely to intimidate anyone tempted to make similar arguments – are not. Such reactions stifle, rather than promote, healthy public debate, not to mention debate within universities themselves.
Furthermore, they send a terrible signal, especially to young people, that some ideas are too sensitive – or even too sacred – to discuss openly. This is anathema to the spirit of academic freedom and to the scientific mindset.
The reality is that some people do want certain ideas to be sacred and beyond debate. They attack and stamp on anyone who disagrees.
The church authorities, it would seem, were not big fans of academic freedom. Indeed, in 1619 Lucilio Vanini had his tongue cut out before being strangled and burned at a stake in Toulouse for his sins, one of which was proposing that humans had evolved from an ape. Two and a half centuries later, when Darwin made his similarly outrageous claim, that human beings had descended from ape-like ancestors, the church’s power had waned.
Science was coming into its own and, while many of a religious bent were incensed – although some clergy were also supportive – Darwin promulgated his theory without threat of reprisal, to the great benefit of human knowledge.
Obviously, the reaction to the Listener letter doesn’t come anywhere close to the violent persecutions that were faced by scientists and free-thinkers in the past. Still, the role that powerful institutions have historically played in setting the boundaries of discussion – often to the great detriment of society as a whole – should lead us to think hard about the relationship between academic freedom and whatever ideology is currently in the ascendant. If the record of intellectual history shows anything, it is that opinions that were once seen as indefensible – both morally and intellectually – have often turned out to advance knowledge.
Great to see some academics coming out strongly in favour of academic freedom.