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The New International, Spring 1957

Max Martin

Books in Review

Academic Freedom in Review


From The New International, Vol. XXIII No. 2, Spring 1957, pp. 111–115.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States
by Richard Hofstadter & Walter P. Metzger
Published by Columbia University Press

Academic Freedom in Our Time
by Robert H. MacIver
Published by Columbia University Press

The reaction of those directly affected by the witchhunting attacks on academic freedom has not, on the whole, been a particularly commendable one. Now and then, a courageous teacher or group of faculty members speaks out sharply in defense of academic freedom. For the most part, however, the nation’s teachers have restricted themselves to vague statements on the “importance of academic freedom” while retreating in both theory and practice on specific academic freedom questions and cases.

In general, the fight has been left to others: to students who have conducted struggles even when it was the rights of their teachers only which were directly violated at the moment; and to the socialists and civil libertarians who defend civil liberties generally. Except for the pompous rhetoric which is standard in many speeches made during commencement exercises, the academic institutions have not really shown any concern with the danger which constantly threatens them.

If only for this reason, the establishment of an Academic Freedom Project by Columbia University deserves commendation. This project was carried on by a committee of scholars headed by Dean Louis Hacker and Professor MacIver who studied the question of academic freedom and published their findings, after receiving a grant in 1951 for this purpose from the Louis M. Rabinowitz Foundation. The Hofstadter-Metzger volume and the MacIverwork have resulted from it.

The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States is primarily an historical review of its subject. The long opening chapter of the book discusses the medieval European university, tracing both the limitations upon freedom of teaching and learning found in lay and church-controlled schools and the degree of liberty which existed. This is followed by chapters on the American college during colonial days and what the authors like to call the “old time college,” the period from 1800 to 1860. The origin and development of Harvard and the emergence of “Harvard liberalism” are dealt with at length, as are, also, the development of academic government in the United States and the competition between secular and religious-sponsored schools, with the secular establishing its dominance. The impact of the abolitionist movement upon the academic community is described in a subsequent chapter.

Part II of the work, The Age of the University concerns itself with the period from the end of the Civil War to World War I. In these years the major conflict in the colleges and universities centered on the disputes between science and religion, as the importance of the former in the school curriculum grew and as realization of the implications of scientific thought for religion, philosophy and for the social sciences developed. One of the major dramas of this dispute consisted of the impact of the work of Darwin.

In an extremely interesting and informative chapter, Hofstadter and Metzger examine the emergence of that relationship between big business and the university which prevails today. The authors reveal that from the very beginning of this relationship the academic community feared the dangerous implications for academic freedom inherent in big business control of education. They discuss many cases of academic freedom disputes in which the role of big business was a factor but conclude that no definite judgment can be established on whether this business control in general impedes liberty on the campus. The very evidence which they marshall, however, as well as important considerations which they ignore make their conclusion untenable. In a final chapter, they review the effect of the first world war on the campus. A number of case histories where patriotic pressures led to a decline of campus freedom are presented. Also discussed is the organization and role of the American Association of University Professors.

This book obviously is background material for the MacIver volumes and most of the civil liberties issues discussed in it are no longer controversial. For these reasons, and because the authors discuss their material in a less impassioned manner than MacIver treats his, it has received praise from even those who subjected Professor MacIver’s study to bitter attack. One can understand this: who will retroactively condemn the defenders of academic freedom in the nineteenth century? Not even those who attack it today. It is for precisely this reason that MacIver’s book is the more interesting and important of the two.

Reviewing Academic Freedom in our Time presents problems for consistent defenders of democracy. There can be no doubt that MacIver “is on the side of the angels” when one considers his intentions and his generally libertarian outlook. That he supports and defends academic freedom is obvious on every page. But on the vital issue which separates consistent civil libertarians from those who have retreated on civil liberties questions – the issue of whether Stalinists should be judged like all other teachers, on their competence and their meeting of professional standards, or whether membership in the Communist Party disqualifies them from teaching – MacIver makes an important concession to the witchhunters in theory, even if a lesser concession in practice.

MacIver begins by analyzing his conception of the university and then by defining academic freedom. For him, the University must offer the right to search for truth no matter where it leads and the “right to interpret his findings and communicate his conclusions without ... interference, molestation or penalization because the conclusions are unacceptable to some authority within or beyond the academy.” Outside the academy scholars and teachers must have the same freedoms other men enjoy, though they should not associate the school with their views and activities. The appointment and promotion of educators must not be conditioned on the congeniality of their views to authority, nor subject to control by forces outside of the academic community.

Academic freedom, he believes, is inherently bound up with one’s conception of the university. If the university is regarded as an institution whose task is the extension and imparting of knowledge then freedom will reign in it. The fact that a secondary task of the university consists of training young people for the professions results in the possibility of pressure for curtailing freedom. Such attitudes as call upon the colleges to prepare the student “to fit in with life,” “be a leader in society,” “to adjust;” views that the university must “build character,” even that it “must educate for democracy” – these result in a perversion of the principles of academic freedom.

Before arriving at the question of Stalinist teachers, MacIver considers the three main lines of traditional attack on civil liberties in the academic world: the economic-political, the religious and the social. With detailed reference to individual cases, he shows how teachers who were non-conformists in each of the three fields have been subject to gross penalization and insists that competence and only competence can be the democratic criteria by which teachers are judged as teachers.

MacIver retreats from this approach when he comes to discuss Stalinist teachers. He starts by saying that to discuss the question of the “rights” of CP educators clouds the issue, that a more fruitful approach would be to judge on the basis of the overall desirability – from the view of the academy – of permitting or not permitting Stalinists to teach. Moreover, he submits, it is useful to bear in mind a certain distinction – that between appointing Stalinists and dismissing those who already have teaching posts.

He takes up three charges adduced for the proposition that Stalinists should not be allowed to teach: that they are intellectually subservient to the Communist Party and therefore not free to search for the truth, that they are committed to the destruction of fundamental liberties and agree with the use of force against ideological opponents – a view incompatible with membership in the academic community which is based on respect for the rights of all views to be heard, and, finally, the charge that they are prepared to use force and violence to overthrow the government for which leading Stalinists have been convicted under the Smith Act.

On charge 1 MacIver renders the old Scottish verdict of Not Proven. He points out that everybody is subject to outside ideological authority and that many are subject to outside organizational authority. Such as each practicing Catholic.

Under the head of the second charge, he states that teachers who accept Stalinism thereby approve the Stalinist use of violence against opponents in those countries in which they exercise power, as well as in the instances of Stalinist violence against opponents in countries in which they do not hold power. How, then, can those who accept it be permitted to teach? Don’t they necessarily believe in destroying by force their opponent colleagues with whom they may now be discussing differences? To these queries there is no effective rebuttal, argues MacIver, although there may be some Stalinist teachers who would desist from using violence against University colleagues. Hence, the verdict: Guilty, with possible extenuating circumstances in individual cases.

And on charge three: that the Stalinists wish to overthrow the government by force and violence. Guilty, period! Incredible as it may seem, MacIver, who at least to some extent recognizes the spuriousness of some of the reasons offered by sophisticated advocates of the “Stalinists do not have the right to teach” line, simply caves in before the Smith Act convictions of the CP leaders and allows that to decide the question for him. He states that whatever doubts one may have about other charges brought against CP teachers, no defense is possible on this score. It is clearly the strongest of all, in his opinion, although he later claims that the cumulative weight of all three arguments settles the matter, and not any single one.

Therefore, concludes MacIver, it is no violation of academic freedom if a college refuses to hire a Stalinist teacher on that ground alone. But having made this concession to the witchhunt, MacIver, aware of the dangerous implications of his retreat, begins to qualify it in a civil libertarian direction. In the first place, he argues, this applies only to hiring Stalinist teachers; it is not legitimate to dismiss Stalinists currently employed on the grounds of their CP membership. One’s reputation is not destroyed if not hired for a job. Firing a teacher, however, is public and will result in a blasted reputation and the creation of a situation in which the ex-teacher will not be able to get another job.

This is obviously MacIver’s attempt to extricate himself from his concession to the witchhunt. Recognizing the dangers in the position he has adopted, he tries to draw back, and not only through his distinction between appointment and dismissal. For he also qualifies the legitimacy of not hiring Stalinist teachers in the following ways:

  1. it applies to CP members and only CP members, not to Stalinist sympathizers, independent Stalinists, and of course, anti-Stalinist radicals or Marxists;
  2. if the effort to exclude Stalinists from obtaining teaching jobs entails any kind of witchhunt or purge or investigation which will stir up an anti-libertarian atmosphere, then it is better to hire a Stalinist teacher;
  3. a decision not to appoint a Stalinist teacher must be arrived at by the faculty itself, not one dictated by a Board of Trustees, a witchhunting committee or any outside authority;
  4. finally, it is best that even CP members who apply for teaching jobs be judged on their individual merits, for there might be a few CP teachers to whom the general charges against the Communist Party do not automatically apply.

Were schools to apply all of the qualifications which MacIver appends to his theoretical endorsement that CP members are disqualified from obtaining teaching positions, probably not a single Stalinist would have his rights violated.

MacIver’s book offers no real comfort to the witchhunters. Its general defense of academic freedom – excellently shown in his attitude towards the right of students, including Stalinist students, to organize what campus clubs they wish, to hear speakers of their own choosing, to control the student press, etc. – have already earned him the bitter attacks of not only the more reactionary witchhunters, but even of “Sidney Hook liberals.”

MacIver’s concern with civil liberties reveals little understanding of the origin of that atmosphere on the nation’s campuses which he deplores. He offers two explanations of this atmosphere. First, there is the form of academic government in the United States in which the teaching body has few powers, and control resides in powerful administrations – the university President, in particular – and Boards of Trustees (primarily composed of people who are not educators and who do not understand the university’s need for academic freedom). The second factor he points to consists of certain peculiar elements in American life. The racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the population results in the absence of a common “consensus of opinion” on “Americanism” and other important ideas of the society. The desire of the various immigrant groups to achieve “Americanization” leads to ultra-patriotic feelings, as various groups vie with each other for the honor of being the most patriotic and “American.” The fact that Americans are “joiners” has led to the creation of a multiplicity of social, professional, fraternal, patriotic and “special interests” organizations, societies and groups, each having a staff of professional functionaries who are divorced from checks by the members and who feel the need of commenting on all public affairs. Under such circumstances, right-wing demagogues can play an influential role in exerting pressure, and intolerance and heresy-hunting have a clear field.

Valid as some of MacIver’s ideas may be for understanding certain xenophobic and super-patriotic tendencies in American life, they obviously do not explain why “waves of intolerance” arise at particular times and not in others. The Cold War, the role of the national government in initiating and sustaining the witchhunt: these are minor factors for him, which barely receive consideration. Valuable as MacIver’s book is as a defense of academic freedom, despite his theoretical retreat from the defense of the rights of Stalinist teachers, – and it is valuable as such – one need not look to him for understanding of the anti-democratic crusade.

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