I have always been the foremost advocate of academic freedom among my peers, most of whom during their early undergraduate days did not see the relevance of academic freedom in their lives, which were seemingly interminable cycles of rote learning and repetition.
Though they might have resented the absence of free thinking from their first-year syllabi — being bogged down with textbooks, readings and the pain of remembering bizarre things — they did not say anything, choosing instead to accept their inalienable right to free thought and opinion and their intrinsic responsibility to graduate.
Naturally few, if any of my peers went on to postgraduate research. And those who completed higher degrees were pursuing financial planning and chartered accounting qualifications and the like. It’s unfortunate that because there’s little research in undergraduate programmes we have no bachelor’s or honour’s in philosophy programmes. At postgraduate level though, master’s and doctorate in philosophy qualifications are still very much the order of the day.
Coursework master’s degrees and doctorates must surely be the greatest American export and though I don’t understand why anything above second-year level is taught rather than researched, I’m sure the demand for higher coursework degrees make these programmes feasible.
Nonetheless, though it’s true that research is the arena wherein the issue of academic freedom is most often addressed, it’s also true that academic freedom is interwoven in undergraduate and coursework programme content. If a university is conservative, it will object to the idolisation of socialism in political science 1A and 1B. If a university is creationist, it will object to the teaching (or contemplation in any form) of evolution.
It’s natural that the disposition of the university will determine the parameters within which thinking or problem-solving takes place. We do not expect to walk into a mosque and hear of the virtues of Judaism and so too can we not expect a university, which is dedicated to peace, to be involved in nuclear-weapon research.
And though it’s true that free thought must flourish for there to be original creativity, it’s also true that where free thought or the process of original creation takes place that such a search for truth must take place within the culture of that institution for it to satisfy the nature of its existence.
A University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) research project, for example, cannot flout the rules of the university and at the same time satisfy the rules of another university and continue to exist as a UKZN research project.
Such that if a university insists on practical laboratory experiments to support research findings in organic chemistry then someone who refuses to conduct laboratory experiments will not be expected to be well-received at that university and the principle of academic freedom cannot justify the refusal to conduct the laboratory experiments.
Similarly if the university’s purpose is to educate the young and impressionable and a particular academic’s objective is to conscientise them in such a way as to gather support and garner mass legitimacy for his or her own personal social, political or economic crusades, then it’s clear that the objectives of the university and the objectives of the errant academic are at odds and that the principle of academic freedom cannot be used to justify exploiting vulnerable students and abusing the lectern for personal glory.
Academic freedom is not a euphemism for the “right to exploit your position to expound your own world view through the medium of your teaching and research supervision”. Academic freedom is the right to search for truth in all places and in all things without prejudice and predetermination. And though some would say this freedom is under threat and in danger of being diminished this would only be true if there was no teaching, no research and no learning taking place at all.
Indoctrination is not an option. We as a community of intellectuals do not peddle fixed ideas and values. We have a virtuous responsibility to enable young people to think freely, creatively, laterally, intelligently and responsibly. We have been granted the opportunity to share a love for knowledge and search for truth as has been passed down from academic generation to academic generation for more than 5 000 years.
To date I have not found a single instance where a complainant could prove that “truth” was being censored from their coursework, that their research was being blinkered or that they were told what to research and which results to arrive at. What I have seen is personality conflicts and bunfights over research funding and job promotions, what I have seen are questionable intellectual standards at undergraduate level and a predilection for coursework degrees rather than research degrees at postgraduate level.
These palavers have become shrouded in the guise of “academic freedom” because someone believes he or she has the right to politicise (in the interpersonal sense of the word) their office, their teaching and their research supervision.
Factually every member of the academic community has an obligation to “bat, bowl and field for the university” and to do so without question. There is no graduate who does not owe their life to their university and it would behove all concerned to remember that we have appropriate forums to discuss grievances and discontent.
I for one, having tied my future welfare to the university am not interested in seeing the value of my (future) degree being called into question because of the uncontrolled ramblings of “activist academics”. It’s clear that they need to take their grievances to a forum and not disguise the damage they do to the university as being their free academic expression.
It’s clear any university activity which is not a curricular or sanctioned extra-curricular activity is completely unacceptable and should be prevented at all costs.
Finally, we cannot disassociate the need to encourage more undergraduates to pursue postgraduate studies from the need for better quality in our doctorate research output or in our retention of doctorate graduates as academics. And as such we must all make an effort to seek higher research degrees and conscientise students about the value of original and free thought, which finds its most palpable expression in the form of innovative postgraduate research.
Masiya phambili sonke!
BA (political science and philosophy)
UKZN Howard College