Education: View From Here

Academic freedom can be stifled by democracies as well as by tyrannies
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The Independent Online
FORTY YEARS ago, the Nationalist government of South Africa introduced a measure which it jokingly called the "Universities Extension Act". The joke was that the Act closed the white universities to Black, Indian and Coloured students, and made it impossible for white universities to recruit anything but white faculty. It's not only wicked regimes that take pleasure in mislabelling what they're up to; the Department for Education and Employment calls the new A-levels "more accessible," when what is meant is "easier".

Almost annually since, there has been an "Academic Freedom Lecture". Two weeks ago, I gave the thirty-seventh, in the company of Professor Martin Legassick; he should have given his lecture 20 years ago, but couldn't. He was teaching in Ghana, and the government would not allow him back into South Africa - his home country - to give it. The university was told that any attempt to publish the lecture would be met by the suppression of the lecture and by financial sanctions against the university. It was an interesting, and not quite comfortable experience to read this forbidden text 20 years after the non-event. At the least, it was a reminder of why liberals need enemies on the left.

Martin Legassick's lecture was called "Academic Freedom and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat", and its message will be familiar to the ageing readers of Lenin, Barrington Moore, and Herbert Marcuse. My theme in contrast was drawn from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. It was a variation on an old but easily forgotten story: academic freedom can be stifled by democracies as well as tyrannies; freedom can fall victim to good nature as well as to simple nastiness; and universities will conspire against themselves.

What makes universities special, and their freedom worth preserving, is that they shelter the dispassionate search for useless truths, or at least for the not immediately and obviously useful, truth. They certainly do other things, too, and quite rightly so, but the other things don't make them special. It is their commitment to the search for truth that justifies their existence as nothing else can. And that is just what is threatened by conformity, and an over-emphasis on usefulness.

Post-apartheid South Africa closely resembles present-day Britain in its obsession with vocationally useful education; and the danger of that obsession is that we forget what separates a university from a training college - the attempt to liberate the intellect and the critical faculties of both the faculty and the students.

You could easily imagine a world without universities; it is the world David Blunkett and Baroness Blackstone would create if they had the chance. It would be a world in which "tertiary schools" followed on from secondary schools, and carefully inspected teachers taught carefully organised syllabuses in line with a national curriculum "benchmarked" by yet another well-meaning quango. It might in fact be an efficient way of getting the young into an employable condition. All it would lack is any sense of intellectual liberation.

What is intellectual liberation? It is the condition that people achieve when they dare to think for themselves. It is what you achieve when you follow the best argument wherever it leads, and don't find yourself swayed by habit, prejudice, panic, superstition or what your best friends all think. It is vulnerable to the good-natured desire not to give pain that sustains political correctness and it is undermined by a tenderness towards the ideas of culture and identity. Intellectual freedom may not be wholly useless, since societies that entirely neglect it end up sclerotic and unprogressive even in their economic activities. But it certainly isn't useful in most of the ways in which vocational training is useful.

Which is why Martin Legassick's never-given lecture makes the fans of Mill and de Tocqueville - the fans of Karl Popper and Isaiah Berlin for that matter - anxious. In the standard Marxist view, academic freedom is a bourgeois privilege; it is sheltered by institutions - universities - that are complicit in the activities of the capitalist state. The apartheid state existed, you might say, in order that migrant workers should provide the brute muscle power that kept middle-class kids comfortable. We now know that "Lenin first and Mill afterwards" means in practice neither socialism for the workers nor freedom for them or anyone else.

All the same, while 80 percent of Britain's best-off teenagers but only 10 percent of the worst-off go on to higher education, and the best-off generally go to the better-equipped institutions into the bargain, anyone defending academic freedom needs a pretty good story about what's in it for the less well-off 80 percent of the population.

The writer is Warden of New College, Oxford