Academic Freedom


Academic Freedom, right of teachers and research workers, particularly in colleges and universities, to investigate their respective fields of knowledge and express their views without fear of restraint or dismissal from office. The right rests on the assumption that open and free inquiry within a teacher’s or researcher’s field of study is essential to the pursuit of knowledge and to the performance of his or her proper educational function. At present this right is observed generally in countries in which education is regarded as a means not only of inculcating established views but also of enlarging the existing body of knowledge. The concept of academic freedom also implies that tenure of office depends primarily on the competence of teachers in their fields and on their acceptance of certain standards of professional integrity rather than on extraneous considerations such as political or religious beliefs or affiliations.


The concept and practice of academic freedom, as recognized presently in Western civilization, date roughly from the 17th century. Although academic freedom existed in universities during the Middle Ages, it signified at that time certain juristic rights, for example, the right of autonomy and of civil or ecclesiastical protection enjoyed by the several guilds that constituted a studium generale, or universities. Before the 17th century, intellectual activities at universities were circumscribed largely by theological considerations, and opinions or conclusions that conflicted with religious doctrines were likely to be condemned as heretical. In the late 17th century the work of such men as the English philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes helped pave the way for academic freedom in the modern sense. Their writings demonstrated the need for the unlimited inquiry in the sciences, and for a general approach to learning unimpeded by preconceptions of any kind. Neither Locke nor Hobbes, however, defended unlimited academic freedom. The German universities of Halle and Göttingen, founded in 1694 and 1737 respectively, were the first European universities to offer broad academic freedom, with few lapses, from their inception. The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, introduced the doctrine of “Lehr- und Lernfreiheit” (“freedom to teach and study”) and helped strengthen Germany’s position as the leader of academic freedom in the 19th century. In the 18th and 19th centuries, universities in Western Europe, Britain, and the United States enjoyed increasing academic freedom as acceptance of the experimental methods of the sciences became more widespread and as control of institutions by religious denominations became less rigorous. In Britain, however, religious tests for graduation, fellowships, and teaching positions were not abolished until late in the 19th century.


During the first half of the 20th-century academic freedom was recognized broadly in most Western countries. However, infringements of the right increased as totalitarianism emerged in various countries, notably in Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Educators in Italy were forced to pledge support to the Fascist regimes. Similar restrictions, including the teaching of racist theories in some fields, were enforced in German universities under National Socialism (Nazism). In the Soviet Union, academic freedom was limited by the necessity of making all instruction and research conform to particular communist doctrines in every field of learning. From time to time the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party laid down decrees establishing the Marxist-Leninist viewpoint in various academic disciplines.

Infringements of academic freedom also occurred in the United States in the 20th century. A notable example was the Scopes trial, held in Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, in which a high school teacher was accused and convicted of violating a state law that forbade the teaching of the theory of evolution in its public schools. This fundamentalist legislation was repealed in 1967.


The 1960s and early 1970s were marked by protest and violence on college campuses, especially in the United States, over its involvement in the Vietnam War. In some places professors were dismissed or arrested for protesting against American participation in the war. This turmoil reached a tragic climax in 1970 with the killing of several students during campus demonstrations. Student protests were also taking place in France. In the long run, however, these disturbances led to a broad recognition of the legitimate concerns of students about the quality of higher education, and of the responsibility of universities, rather than the public or the government, to maintain essential academic order.

In general, significant increases in enrollments and expansion of faculties, as well as a broadening of the make-up of both student and faculty populations, contributed to a vast enrichment of the academic curriculum, to increasing faculty control over the content of courses, and, overall, to the enhancement of the freedom to teach and to learn in colleges and universities.

Beginning in the early 1970s in the United States (and somewhat later in other countries such as Britain and Canada), however, institutions of higher education were faced with serious financial problems. Steps were taken to deal with these difficulties also took a toll on academic freedom. For example, a proliferation of irregular faculty appointments, intended to save money, created a virtual underclass of teachers lacking the employment security generally considered necessary for the exercise of academic freedom.

Threats to and violations of academic freedom continued in the 1980s. In many nations (among them, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and Poland) educators whose teachings were objectionable to the government were sometimes dismissed, harassed, or imprisoned. In Beijing, China, in 1989, the world watched the Tiananmen Square Protest, a student-led pro-democracy demonstration that culminated in the deaths of hundreds of protestors and caused international condemnation of the Chinese government.

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