Academic Freedom and What It Means Today

In Roger Scruton (ed.), Liberty and Civilization: The Western Heritage (Encounter Books, 2010). Originally published as "Academic Freedom and the Liberal Arts" in The American Spectator 41:7 (September 2008).

When the flower children and anti-war activists of the 1960s came to power in the universities, they did not overthrow the idea of liberal arts education. In a great many cases, they proclaimed themselves true partisans of liberal arts ideals. True, many influential representatives of that generation believe that universities should be producing left- wing social activists, with more than a few eager to transform university education into a species of vocational training for aspiring ACLU lawyers, Planned Parenthood volunteers, and Barack H. Obama-style “community organizers.” There are even colleges and universities that offer academic credit for social activism. Others, however, resist the idea that learning should be instrumentalized in this way. They profess allegiance to the traditional (or,  in any event, traditional-sounding) idea that the point of liberal education is to enrich and liberate  the student. That is what is supposed to be “liberal” about liberal arts learning—that it conveys the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that carry with them a certain profound form of freedom.

However traditional this may sound, there is nevertheless an unbridgeable chasm between the idea of liberal arts education as classically conceived, and the conception sponsored and promoted by some (though, mercifully, not all) in authority in the academy today. Many academic humanists and social scientists propose liberation as the goal of liberal arts learning, to be sure. But the question is, liberation from what?

The American Spectator