The telos, or end, of a university, what makes it different from a Scout summer camp, Bell Labs, Human Rights Watch, Dairy Queen, and the Notre Dame football team, is the search for truth. The condition that enables the search for truth is freedom. Freedom means that a student, professor, or anyone at all in the university may pose a question, express a view, or pursue an argument without suffering, or fearing that she will suffer, a material penalty—a lower grade, censorship, a loss of job or position, a demotion, the denial of tenure or promotion, or any other sort of sanction.
Freedom has fallen on hard times as of late in our nation’s universities. The past six or seven years have seen a wave of disinvitations of speakers, firings and demotions of professors, the expulsion of Christian religious groups, the rise of mandatory trainings in particular views of justice, calls for prohibiting the funding of speakers and activities from certain sources, and even incidents of violence, all directed against professors, students, and administrators whose utterances have offended.
The National Association of Scholars reports 200 such incidents since 2014, while the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) revealed last year that 426 “targeting incidents” involving demands for sanctions took place in the previous five-and-a-half years, almost three-quarters of them eliciting some type of sanction, and that such incidents have sharply increased in frequency during this period. A separate FIRE study, also published last year, of attitudes towards free speech on college campuses, reports alarming findings:
- “Fully 60% of students reported feeling that they could not express an opinion because of how students, a professor, or their administration would respond. This number is highest among ‘strong Republicans’ (73%) and lowest among ‘strong Democrats’ (52%). Black students are most likely to report an instance where they censored themselves (63%). Just 15% of students reported feeling very comfortable publicly disagreeing with a professor about a controversial topic. Only 11% of female students reported this, compared to 19% of male students.”
- “Two-thirds of students (66%) say it is acceptable to shout down a speaker to prevent them from speaking on campus, up 4 percentage points from last year.”
- “More than 40% of college students identified race as a topic that is difficult to have an open and honest conversation about on campus, a figure that rises to 66% for black students. Similarly, 45% of students reported that they do not feel they could have an open and honest discussion about abortion on their campus.”
Who promotes the curtailment? Both the left and the right, but far more commonly the left, these studies show. The first of the above findings indicates this, as does a separate finding from the same report, namely, “[m]ore than 60% of extreme liberals said it’s “always” or “sometimes” acceptable to shout down a speaker; compared to 15% for extreme conservatives.” Alleged offenses include racism, sexism, climate change denialism, homophobia, transphobia, and opposition to diversity policies. Arguments on the right have also arisen, though, that call for dialing back freedom in public law and policy and whose logic could support sanctioning speech on college campuses.
The time is nigh, then, to articulate anew why freedom is essential for a university’s defining purpose, the search for truth.
In the Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas defined truth as the conformity of the mind to real things. We grasp truth—about biology, theology, politics, literature—through acts of the intellect that entail judgments, ones that we arrive at through investigating, arguing, considering, listening, persuading, challenging, interrogating, experimenting with hypotheses, assessing evidence, and thinking matters through, alone and together with others. This work of reasoning, leading to acts of the will through which we give our assent to what we judge to be true, is, by its nature, only genuine when it is performed freely. To respect a person’s judgment of and assent to truth is to respect her dignity as a searcher for truth.
So, if a student were to espouse a position only because he deemed it the route to a higher grade or a professor’s favor, if a professor espouses a finding only because he thinks it will gain him tenure, ensure the continuation of funding, or avoid a cancel movement, he will not be assenting to truth at all. Or, if a student or professor were to refrain from expressing a view about race, sexuality, or environment protection in the classroom or the campus newspaper because she feared repercussions, her search for truth would be stifled. Likewise, if a professor believes that his colleague’s views of his subject matter were based on factors other than his authentic and reflective judgments about reality, the free search for truth grinds to a halt. What robust norms of academic freedom do is protect the genuine search for truth from the forces that squelch it.
Why do members of today’s academy seek suppression? Justice, says the prominent social psychologist, Jonathan Haidt. A university can have only one primary telos, Haidt reasons, and many in today’s universities aim to elevate justice over truth. They view the university as an instrument of social change, which requires stifling the views of those who would “stand in the doorway [and] block up the hall,” in the words of singer Bob Dylan. Haidt does not oppose universities pursuing justice through research, teaching, activism, and service, but rather objects to subordinating the search for truth to justice in this pursuit. He allows that freedom is not absolute. Certain forms of speech demean others in ways that have no connection to the search for truth and are rightly subject to restriction. By and large, though, he fears that “Social Justice U” is supplanting “Truth U.” In 2015, he cofounded the Heterodox Academy, which promotes diversity of thought in the academy and now sports over 5000 members—including myself.
Our argument is for argument. Academic freedom does not oppose universities promoting action against climate change and its deleterious effects, particularly upon the world’s most vulnerable, but it forbids quashing debate over evidence, effects, and policies. Academic freedom does not oppose the promotion of diversity and sensitivity but demands that we be allowed to question the assumptions and theories that underpin this promotion. Does opposing racism require that we all sign on to Critical Race Theory? Or might other frameworks better diagnose and oppose racism—say, a Catholic framework, as Notre Dame has an interest in developing? Likewise, we must be free to ask: Are the presuppositions of the LGBTQ movement compatible with the meaning and purpose of sexuality and marriage? Free inquiry into truth is not an obstacle to, but is in fact a requirement of, a university’s pursuit of justice.
That I make this case here at Our Lady’s university, some might find more than a little ironic. For years, even centuries, critics have charged that Catholic universities, and the Church that is behind them, are one of the world’s greatest opponents of free inquiry. Is the Church, by virtue of its teachings and its mission, indisposed to freedom? More harshly, to the extent that cancel culture, several of whose causes run contrary to the teachings of the Church, takes hold at Notre Dame, might the Church simply be getting what has been coming to it?
On first inspection, the critics might appear to be on target. One of the Church’s most renowned features—beloved or notorious, depending on your view—is its proclamation of fixed truth. Its magisterium (the pope and the bishops) claims that its teaching is infallible, upheld by the Holy Spirit, in matters of faith and morals and that this teaching is nothing less than the pathway to heaven. Would the Church not deem it foolish to submit such teaching to free discussion?
Skepticism of the Church’s favor for freedom might be merited all the more in light of the recent rise of a school of conservative Catholic thought that has come to be known as integralism. Like other conservative Catholics, and on the grounds of Church teaching, integralists worry about the rise of moral license and of a culture of self-defining individualism in the West in recent years. Distinctly, though, integralists view these cultural trends as of a piece with political liberalism, the set of rights and liberties—of thought, expression, conscience, speech, and even religion—that Westerners have long regarded as the signature of their political orders.
Integralists criticize fellow conservative Catholics for having placed far too much faith, for far too long, in these liberties. It is naïve, integralists contend, to regard freedom as a neutral value, a level playing field on which Catholics can promote a Christian society while at the same time trusting that their opponents, who are equally empowered by the same liberties to advance their view of the world, will reciprocally respect the freedom of Catholics. Does not the cancel culture prove the foolishness of this faith in freedom once and for all? While no integralist to my knowledge has called for curtailing academic freedom, their arguments readily imply such a possibility. Is not then the skepticism of a Catholic university’s capacity for freedom freshly confirmed?
Sed contra! A Catholic university has every reason to uphold freedom of inquiry—even stronger reasons, in fact, than secular universities, or, for that matter, its canceling critics, can offer. Integralists are wrong about the reasons for freedom, whether in liberal democracies or in universities. The rationale for freedom is not fundamentally that it affords the Church opportunities for expansion, or that it creates a level playing field or a reciprocity agreement in the manner of the World Trade Organization, where Catholics lower their discursive barriers as long as their opponents do the same.
No, the rationale for freedom is a more foundational principle: the dignity of the human person with respect to her capacity, her interest, and her duty to search for the truth. To curtail this search is to squelch her authentic assent to the truth and to violate her dignity. Freedom does not imply relativism, individualism, or indifference to the truth, but rather is ordered to the truth.
This was the rationale by which the Church came to embrace religious freedom in its landmark declaration, Dignitatis Humanae, at the close of the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The Church and its greatest teachers, including Lactantius, Tertullian, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas, have always insisted that a person could adopt faith only through an internal act of radical freedom. Yet, beginning in the late fourth century, the Church began to sanction coercion at the hands of the temporal authority, ushering in a long era that would include six centuries of the Inquisition. How could the Church stress freedom yet sanction the burning of heretics? Its rationale was not mainly that such measures coerced the wayward person into faith but rather that the heretic was poisoning the spiritual ecology, leading others into confusion, and undermining social unity. Nineteenth century popes denounced religious freedom because—not unlike today’s integralists—they associated it with “latitudinarianism” and “indifferentism,” insisting that error has no rights.
Eventually, however, through the evolution of argument, particularly at the Second Vatican Council, the fathers of the Church discovered a different rationale for religious freedom—not that error has rights but rather that people have rights. On account of their duty to search for the truth about God, people have the right to conduct and to live out answers to that search, individually and in community, without hindrance. Even should their answers contain less than the full truth that the Church teaches—a fullness that Dignitatis Humanae resoundingly reaffirms—they continue to enjoy this freedom on account of their dignity as truth-seeking creatures.
Freedom ordered to truth: The argument runs in parallel for the university. Everyone has a right to inquire freely and openly on account of his capacity for and interest in discovering the truth in every discipline. On this rationale, Catholic universities are uniquely disposed towards freedom. In light of Aquinas’s definition of truth, the magisterium and the tradition affirm that the universe is suffused with intelligible reality to which the mind may be conformed. The more truth there is to be found, the greater the rationale for the freedom to find the truth. Fittingly, the first great universities, founded in medieval Europe, were both Catholic and characterized by free inquiry. (Some were also Muslim, corresponding to a period of vibrant intellectual life in Islamic civilization.) The liberal arts, which dates from this period, were called liberal because of their stress on the free pursuit of knowledge.
In the secular university, by contrast, skepticism of truth is more widespread and the cancel culture is consequently more voluble. The impulse to suppress is especially strong where prevails postmodernism, which rejects universal truth and objective reality, holds that knowledge is only what the mind projects, and posits power as the pervasive shaper of knowledge, and yet whose proponents are often zealous for social justice. Faculty meetings where professors contrive cancellation are thick with invocations of theorists such as Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. The partnership between truth and freedom is verified both in its presence and in its absence.
Importantly, nothing about academic freedom stands in the way of a Catholic university fashioning its Catholic character vigorously and deliberately, as a free society allows it to do and the Church’s very truth demands that it do. Profitable here is a distinction between the sphere of administration and the sphere of inquiry. The sphere of administration addresses residential life, student clubs, pastoral ministry, human resources and employment, curricular requirements, and behavioral standards, where norms and practices ought to reflect the Church’s teachings. In this sphere falls hiring for mission—recruiting faculty who are committed to integrating Catholic teaching into their teaching. Academic freedom in no way forbids building a university of a certain sort. The sphere of inquiry consists of the classroom, student publications, faculty publications, artistic performance, and public speech. It is here that academic freedom governs directly.
So, a faithful Catholic university would structure its employee health care and benefits policies consistently with Catholic norms of marriage and sexuality, while in the classroom and the student newspapers, students would be free to question these norms—and, yes, to defend them. A Catholic university fittingly promotes environmental justice, as Pope Francis urged in his renowned encyclical of 2015, Laudato Si, while in the classroom students are free to criticize climate activism—and to defend it. Behind a Catholic university’s fidelity to Catholic morality in its policies is its belief that the truth will make you free; behind its fearless commitment to open inquiry in its classrooms is its confidence that freedom leads you to truth.
Daniel Philpott is a faculty advisor to the Irish Rover and professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.