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Academic Freedom and the Future of Civilization

February 28, 2005

The attack on Hans-Hermann Hoppe draws attention to an institution that hangs by a thread in our state-managed times: academic freedom. The attackers and the victims come from both right and left in a continuing cycle of aggression and retaliation that began with the politicization of the university environment, and will continue so long as academic institutions are used as tools of political propaganda and indoctrination. That a world-famous libertarian intellectual would come under assault should raise the consciousness of all who care about the future of liberty.

In the first letter that began the public aspect of the case, the university administration excoriated Hoppe for a politically sensitive illustration that he used in an economics lecture. The administration then dared pronounce on what should be considered valid (politically approved) fact and invalid (politically unapproved) opinion, and insisted he stick to the former and eschew the latter in his classroom lectures. He had earlier been threatened with even more severe punishments.

The weapon used against him is hardly a surprise. Following a student complaint, the university's "anti-discrimination" regulations were invoked to say that Hoppe had created a hostile learning environment, as if his teaching was invidious and personal as versus illustrative and general. As a long line of academic and commercial victims of these regulations can attest, anti-discrimination regulations presume the ability of enforcers to read the mind of the accused and perfectly discern his motive, then criminalize it in a fully despotic fashion.

Using these laws to suppress dissent is more subtle than the old instruments of loyalty oaths, claims of treason, accusations of heresy, and the like. They tap into the reigning political morality of the day, which is that there are few wrongs as heinous as insulting a politically favored victim group. Anyone so accused can hardly ever escape the accusation, and there is essentially no defense other than to crawl, cry mea maxima culpa, and spend the rest of one's days affirming the truth and merit of official political etiquette.

What the university had not counted on was that Hoppe would not cave in and take this path. He refused and fought back, and eventually the case entered the public eye. The bureaucrats who went after him could not have expected the amazing and near-universal response, which was outrage at Hoppe’s accusers.

More than 1,000 scholars, students, and citizens have signed the Mises Institute's letter on his behalf – an unprecedented online effort on behalf of a faculty member – and this has lifted everyone's spirits. European scholars wrote and signed an additional letter. More importantly, to those professors who face pressure every day and fear breaking political taboos, the petition says: you are not alone. You can count on an international movement of students, scholars, and citizens to back you should you face attempts to silence you.

This is all magnificent. It also draws attention to the importance of academic freedom in the history of civilization. What academic freedom means is no more and no less than the inviolability of the academy from state intrusion. It means that government may not dictate what is taught in the classroom, and, by extension, professors must not face retaliation by the state or its proxies for the ideas they teach.

When many people hear this phrase, they think it represents special privilege, as if professors are claiming a right for themselves that others in society do not have. After all, we don't hear about the rights of plumbers, real-estate developers, or computer-programmers. We all answer to someone. Why should professors, just because they have PhDs and impressive gowns, be treated any differently?

One response to this is that the same freedoms that apply to professors in a free society should indeed apply to everyone. Yes, there should be plumber freedom, etc., and it should be as inviolable as academic freedom. While it is true that most people do not consistently defend such a broad view of freedom, such guarantees should indeed exist. There should be liberty for all, and privilege for none.

Nor does the idea of academic freedom somehow trump the institution of private property. A private school is free to hire and fire on any basis whatsoever. It can make contracts with professors that say: you must always teach that X religion is true, that the college president is not a jerk, that socialism did not fail, or whatever else is specified in the contract. There is a market for contracts, and professors are free to shop around.

Nor does academic freedom mean relativism, as William F. Buckley's bestseller God and Man at Yale (1952) presumes. Buckley, whose attack on Yale in this book for its tolerance of dissent, had an enormous impact on the American conservative movement. He belittles academic freedom even as he misunderstands it. He also heralds the federal government for being "far ahead" of private universities in suppressing dissidents. In fact, Buckley here approves of the government rule that classrooms teach nothing "which is manifestly inimical to the public welfare." Here we have a founding document of postwar conservatism!

Despite attacks from the left and right, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, contract is not at all unusual in specifying academic freedom as a firm principle, even today. Why such an emphasis on this point at a time when all our freedoms are being chipped away? Why do people get up in arms about this particular point? Why does there exist a constant struggle for the rights of speech in the classroom, when so many other rights have been given up without a fight?

The reason lies deep in Western history. When the universities of the early Middle Ages were established, they were established by the Church to be completely free of state interference. No secular leader was permitted to interfere, and none dared do so. This was academic freedom: freedom from the state.

This permitted the universities to teach ideas contrary to current political trends, contrary to regime orthodoxy, and contrary to whatever the local chieftain demanded. Universities, like cathedrals, were sanctuaries from wars, political machinations, revolutions, and kingly belligerence. University life was not always peaceful, but its conflicts were internal matters of management. This tradition of autonomy was quite broad: not even Popes used their formal powers against them.

The independence of academic life is what permitted the rise in the Middle Ages of the ideas of liberalism, human rights, commercial freedom, religious freedom, scientific objectivity, and progress generally. As Ralph Raico has pointed out, the competing sovereignties of church, university, family, community, and state led to an ideal confluence of forces, such that no one institution could impose its will on the whole of society. This permitted the emergence of new ideas and new ways of thinking that led to capitalism and the anti-statist movement of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Of course, the Middle Ages that defended academic freedom was a time before the creation of the nation-state in the 16th century. Jacques Barzun writes (in Sidney Hook's edited volume In Defense of Academic Freedom, 1971; pp. 120–129) that by 1500, the entire old scheme of divided sovereignty and the free university had been wiped away. The advent of the nation-state led to government imposition on universities in Europe. Kings interfered in management and imposed new rules on students, administrations, and faculty. Since then, universities have been threatened, dictated to, and shut down for political reasons.

What is remarkable is not that states have imposed their will, but the extent to which academic freedom survived the onslaught of the nation-state. The sacrosanct principle against interference remained the norm, even as the rest of society became absorbed into the new statism. In this respect, the independence of the university mirrored the independence of the Church; it survived because the institution fought so hard for it. Academic freedom made it possible, which is why Walter Metzger described the institution as "one of the remarkable achievements of man."

The idea survived not only the creation and growth of the nation state, but autocracy and even the emergence of the total state. Under Nazism and Communism, there was no academic freedom. But even they could not stamp it out entirely in the farther reaches of their empires. As Barzun points out, "even under the Russian czars the police were forbidden to enter the university, a tradition that curiously persisted through the Russian repression at Prague in the summer of 1968."

One lesson that history teaches is that the state never relents. It wants all institutions under its control. We owe our freedom not to the state's willingness to allow people and institutions to be free, but to the willingness of people and institutions to resist. The state is forever pressing its demands against the university, even as the university, even if owned by the state, bears a moral obligation rooted in history and tradition to resist.

One of many tools the state uses to control academic life today is agitation of student victim groups. Any student claiming to be offended by a professor's remark about a group or class or individual can invoke anti-discrimination laws. The university is usually ideologically prepared to go along, given the prevalence of "politically correct" sympathies in the higher administration. This has led to a disproportionate number of political dissidents being caught in the web of the newest round of attacks on classroom autonomy.

Mises and the liberal tradition generally have argued that ideas are the unseen forces that shape our history and future. If professors cannot feel free and protected when they teach ideas contrary to the ruling regime, liberty faces the gravest possible danger: that students of tomorrow are prevented from exploring and knowing truth. Anyone concerned about the future of liberty has a moral obligation to join the resistance.

The ideas of the Austrian School in the 20th century were subjected to censorship and attack by states left and right. Mises's books were banned by both Communists and Nazis. This was the fate of other thinkers in our tradition, from Wilhelm Roepke to F.A. Hayek. Even in the United States, Austrians have felt the pressure of political interference, with even the heads of freedom-minded think tanks hauled before Congressional committees (as happened in the 1950s). It is expected, then, for Austrians to again be out front in defense of the rights of intellectuals.

The professors of tomorrow can either be free to think, research, write, and publish, without interference by the state or its proxies, or they risk becoming what Barzun calls commissars with PhDs. There are many great teachers in academia today. We at the Mises Institute know this; after all, our programs have assisted in educating many of them, and placing them where they are today. Now is the time to take the next step, and defend their right to think and teach. This is why the victory of Hoppe today is a victory for civilization tomorrow.

Sign the Hoppe Petition.


 Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (Rockwell@mises.org) is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. See his Mises.org archive. Post comments on the blog.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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