The University Record, April 3, 1995

Academic freedom provides protected space for exploration

By Jane R. Elgass 

We live in an age of uncertainty, an environment in which "universities are on a collision course with the American psyche that want assurances, wants certainty, wants skills, wants information that will stabilize the future."

Academic freedom is needed more than ever, said Linda Ray Pratt, "to protect the space in which to be uncertain, in which to hang possibilities that don't reconcile, space to explore connections that might be built between differences, to adjudicate an ethical outcome when opinions are in conflict."

Pratt is professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and immediate past president of the American Associaiton of University Professors.

Academic freedom and its practices, she noted, are the model and means by which knowledge changes and grows in a world that does not want uncertainty and difference. Those practices, she said, give individuals room to be right or wrong, provide an environment that harbors tradition and fosters revolution, one in which we can defend truth and debunk it.

That freedom, Pratt said, gives faculty and students the opportunity to ask, to critique, to expose, to redefine without fear of condemnation.

If universities do not offer a place for communication and evaluation with consideration of the rights of others, "I'm not sure there is any place where such conduct is practiced," she said. "For most of us, knowledge is the collective work of human minds. It is as close to the truth as we can get or may want to be, and relies on how we understand other elements in a system in which not all things are stable."

Pratt delivered the fifth annual Davis, Markert, Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom, "Academic Freedom and the Merits of Uncertainty," on March 20 during a meeting of the University Senate.

Acknowledging that universities have been and always will be revered or reviled depending on one's knowledge and convictions, she noted that the principles of academic freedom drafted by a fledgling American Association of Uni-versity Professors (AAUP) in 1915 still rings true today.

Framers of that document maintained that universities should be "intellectual experiment stations in which ideas germinate, in which the fruit, though distasteful to the community as a whole, is allowed to ripen, the product of which is competence, patience and sincere inquiry set forth with dignity, courtesy and temperateness of language, with no suppression or innuendo of divergent views."

It is the business of the faculty today as then, Pratt said, not to provide students with ready-made conclusions, but rather to train them to think for themselves. As the AAUP document noted, she said, "it is the duty of instructors to spark genuine intellectual awakening, to arouse a keen desire to reach personally verified conclusions on all questions, and to bring this about with patience, considerateness and pedagogical wisdom."

Without academic freedom, the document noted, universities won't be able to fulfill their most characteristic function in a democratic society: to help make the public more self-critical and more circumspect, to check hasty and unconsidered impulses, to train us to look before and after.

"Eighty years after, there is nothing I want to throw out here," Pratt said of the document. There is much I want to see more widely and sincerely practiced by our profession."

Referencing claims that the Holocaust never took place and the teaching of creationism in schools, Pratt addressed critics of academic freedom by stating that these incidents are "evidence that the practices [of academic freedom] work. The right to talk carries a responsibility to do so with sound and scholarly opinions that can win support."

We don't always judge wisely, she acknowledged, or withstand interference, but when that happens we turn to adjudication.

We live in uncertain times, Pratt said, in which universities are changing, in which the traditional university, viewed as an instrument of emancipation through education, now also serves a corporate structure that has little interest in free exchange of ideas.

"I still believe the university must be a resource and refuge for free expression of new ideas. I worry if that function is absorbed by new commercialized or vocational universities, leaving us with no barricade against a technocratic world.

"Education is still a way to build a rich world," Pratt said, "and academic practices provide the training ground to evaluate propositions and explore truth. If knowledge fails to open understanding, it will end in closing doors either in frustration or indifference."