Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The Woman Problem & other prose

Academic Freedom

page 64

Academic Freedom

The following motion, proposed by Mr F. A. de la Mare, was rejected by the New Zealand University Senate at its recent meeting by seventeen votes to seven: 'That the Senate of the University of New Zealand affirms the right of university teachers to the full exercise of their functions and privileges as citizens. It maintains that the public expression of opinion within the limits of the law, on controversial matters, is in no way incompatible with the position and responsibilities of a university teacher. It thinks that the public should be educated to the idea that any such expression of opinion is personal and in no way commits the institution to which a teacher belongs.'

The question of academic freedom in New Zealand is by no means an academic one. At first glance it may appear to be a matter of vast unimportance to society at large whether, let us say, a certain professor is allowed to stain his lips with Communism, to the infinite distress of a haberdasher on the College Council. Actually, the way such a professor is treated has a very strong practical bearing on the general question of the status of the individual in society.

It is possible to regard the University Colleges as cultural islands, in which an attenuated and abstract form of life exists in complete detachment from that of the real world. It is true that the conduct of University men often seems to justify such a view. The two ways in which one may be detached from life—the way of the contemplative and the way of the corpse—tend to become confused in the minds of those who, in outgrowing enthusiasm, have arrived at nothing better than inertia.

But even if it were the case (which, fortunately, it is not) that University staffs consisted entirely of mummies embalmed in specialised knowledge, University life (or death) would still have an intimate connection with the life of the community. The chief reason for this, from a political point of view, is the traditional importance of the University—the page 65authority it exercises, often in the most irrational way, over certain aspects of public opinion. A good example of this was provided by the case of the Oxford students who 'went pacifist'. Big Business does not often show signs, in its newspapers, of mental disturbances when small groups of people 'go to extremes'. The Y.M.C.A., the League of Nations, the Anti-war Movement, the Communist Party, the Council of Christian Congregations and other small minorities are ignored when they attack vested interests. But the press and the interests behind it showed every symptom of worry when this handful of very young men declared against war. The University still has a great and mystical power to impress the public. It is the fountainhead of Knowledge.

For this reason those who wish to restrict freedom find it necessary to make the University one of their first points of attack. The fascist influences that were consolidating their power under the Coalition Government realised this, and made several assaults in the early 'thirties on academic freedom. After doing some damage they were held at bay, and the question receded into the background for the time being. It would be a mistake to imagine, as some members of the University Senate seem to do, that it is settled.

Elsewhere in the world University men, under political stress, have taken up a strong stand against fascist tendencies. The influence of academic opinion over young people is strong, and for that reason fascism, which exploits the 'idealism' of youth, is bound to take the University seriously. The University will be doing less than justice to society and to its own tradition when it fails to repay this courtesy.

The need for continual vigilance, the need to be prepared against attack, should be evident by this time. Is the New Zealand University Senate still living in an imaginary Edwardian world of perfect gentlemen, who invariably say 'Begging your pardon, sir' before they slit a throat? Warnings of that sort are not given nowadays. 'Shoot for the lights' is the first rule in the fascist manual.

Mr de la Mare's motion was introduced at a particularly suitable moment, and its defeat, I think, represents a serious error of judgement on the part of men who, even if they were page 66bereft of all other faculties, should still be expected to have and to exercise that one.

Those members of the Senate who are genuinely in favour of freedom did harm by voting against the motion. Had they 'moved the previous question', or simply refrained from voting, that would have been a negative and non-committal attitude. The vote against the motion is now liable to be interpreted as an affirmation of the contrary principle. The highest body in the University system has left it to be inferred that it is not in favour of free speech. Charity might concede that the Senate is no worse than lukewarm about it; but charity will not be in evidence when a case arises.

'The public should be educated to the idea that any such expression of opinion (on controversial matters, by a University teacher) is personal and in no way commits the institution to which a teacher belongs.' That is part of the defeated motion. When Professor Bladders is found running down the street in his shirt-tails in the early morning, brandishing a hatchet and shouting 'Death to the Bourbons!' can the public be blamed in future for thinking that this does 'commit the institution' to which the Professor belonged before being committed to an institution? Will the University Senate, in such a case, issue a public repudiation of monarchist sentiments?

That an expression of personal opinion on the part of a University teacher could, under our present system, be allowed to commit his College is (theoretically speaking) ridiculous. Yet it is precisely because many people accept this notion that it needs contradicting.

What is the logic of the whole matter? Let it be granted, in the first place, that a teacher is subject to the ordinary restriction of statutory law. He is then in exactly the same position as any other member of society. If the law is unreasonable, that is a general problem, to be faced by the community as a whole. But the moment additional restrictions are applied, within the narrower circle of the University, the problem becomes an entirely different one. If there are certain views which, in the opinion of the Senate or a local Council, should not be expressed by a teacher, page 67 what are those views? In logic and in justice they should be listed. More than that: it follows that the opinions he may express should also be defined. In other words, the moment the teacher is required to refrain from certain expressions of opinion, the basis of the University system ceases to be liberal and becomes authoritarian. A body of doctrine must of necessity be formulated, and an official censor appointed to whom doubtful questions of interpretation may be referred.

This is by no means an illogical system. For the moment, I am neither attacking nor defending it. My point is that the only tolerable alternative to such a system is one that is completely free; questions of doctrine (religious, philosophical, political) being left to the knowledge and judgement of individual teachers when they address the public. In so far as doctrinal interpretations (open or implied) are inseparable from classroom instruction, an equal measure of freedom should be granted to the teacher, qua teacher. To restrict this freedom, not on authoritarian lines, but merely according to 'public opinion' (which means, in practice, the inhibitions of greengrocers or printers who happen to sit on College Councils) is to procure an abortion.

In the absence of any proper authoritarian system it should be obvious, I repeat, that the teacher has a right to demand complete freedom. The results may not be entirely satisfactory. It would be absurd to hope for such a thing. But if there is any other way of working that is acceptable to reason and honesty, I should be glad to be told of it.

If it be maintained that the system is authoritarian at present—then what is the authority, and what is the doctrine?

Several speakers during the Senate discussion affirmed their belief in free speech before voting against it. It was suggested by one or two that there was no evidence of any repression. This raises another point. There is a case (the intimate details of which must have been known to everybody present) in which a man who committed an 'indiscretion' was later dismissed for 'reasons of economy', or on some similar pretext. No honest person will deny that those 'reasons' constituted a piece of blatant hypocrisy, and that page 68the real reason was the 'indiscretion'. How are teachers to be protected against this sort of thing? While such a happening is possible, how can any teacher feel secure? The important thing is to create an atmosphere of freedom, in which anything smelling even faintly of oppression will be as noticeable as the stink of a bad drain. By passing Mr de la Mare's motion, the Senate would have done something towards guaranteeing the purity of the air, and assuring teachers that they run no risk of asphyxiation by a sudden gust of sewer-gas. As it is, one is left with the uneasy feeling that almost any utterance might, in suitable circumstances, be interpreted as the 'blazing indiscretion' which, according to the chancellor, would 'obviously call for condemnation'.