One of the great fears of the modern university is a monolithic academic atmosphere. No viewpoints should be suppressed, and inhibiting research, regardless of the subject, is a mortal sin. The air of license that these premises produce is not a defect but a freeing and intended result.
In the pages of the Rover last spring, Professor Patrick Deneen penned a provocatively titled column “Against Academic Freedom,” arguing that the modern, monolithic university culture ultimately stems from the premises and history of “academic freedom” itself. He wrote in response to Professor Daniel Philpott’s “Let’s Argue,” a defense of an ordered academic freedom which strives for higher ends.
Regardless of whether Philpott’s defense of academic freedom is feasible, or if Deneen accurately interprets such freedom’s inherent ends, the term is used most frequently at Notre Dame as a last line of defense against promoting the Catholic character of the school.
A few years back, Notre Dame students petitioned the administration for a campus-wide pornography filter on university Wi-Fi—a common sense measure to support already existing university policy. The policy proposal was not struck down due to cost, potential effectiveness, or labor associated with implementing such a filter. Rather, students were told that such a filter—even one with an easy “opt-out” function—would violate academic freedom. If blocking even the most vulgar content is seen as too restrictive, this raises serious questions about the purported ends of the university’s freedom.
The same line has repeatedly been invoked against supporting the Catholic mission of the university and bolstering the religious ethos on campus.
As the Rover reported this fall, academic freedom is the reason Notre Dame sells tarot cards and sexualized children’s book in her bookstore and why she must allow professors to help students obtain abortions.
Regarding the former two examples, the Rover was told by the Trade Operations Manager at the bookstore that Notre Dame carries such materials because “We are an academic university that looks at things from every side so the student can know the whole picture to try to make a conscious decision.” The whole picture? As demonic as they may be, tarot cards are the tip of the iceberg in allowing the occult on campus. Defending them on the basis of “open-mindedness” seems a dangerous line to take.
Similarly, university professors disseminate information about how students might subvert the law, both human and divine, to kill their unborn children through abortifacients. They say, “Information is not illegal”—even information on how to break the law and commit moral evil.
These loud pro-abortion messages are sustained because “Notre Dame supports my academic freedom,” explained one pro-abortion professor, Tamara Kay to the Rover.
But not all information is harmless, and certainly, some information is illegal.
Increasingly, people pay for saying the wrong thing, questioning the regime, uttering “hate speech,” and so on. The Rover recently reported several such instances here on campus. The modern university attempts to carefully curate the conversation on campus.
The hypocritical, unequal application of academic freedom seen through this curation fosters justifiable anger: “Let me say what I think too!” “Let me have a voice in the conversation!” But would the happy and free society, which some seem to idealize, truly be realized where anyone is free to spread pornography, sexualize children, promote the occult, and advocate for killing the unborn?
Clearly, allowing all viewpoints is not a final answer: some restrictions on speech—even at the highly protected university—are necessary for a flourishing community. No one believes that racist remarks or that yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, for instance, need to be protected. The only question is where to draw the line.
Drawing the line in gray areas is difficult: prohibitions of any kind reflect a moral understanding of the world. Racism is wrong because it unjustly punishes an individual for an amoral attribute—the color of one’s skin. This basic understanding of justice and injustice is necessary, even if subconsciously, to make this moral judgment.
Similarly, any “limitation” of academic freedom necessitates a coherent moral framework.
As Alasdair MacIntyre argued back in 1989 in his inaugural lecture as Chair of the Philosophy Department here at Notre Dame, “The rules for right action for rational animals are those rules intentional conformity to which is required if their specific perfection is to be achieved.” He then continued, “The content of those rules, their exceptionless character, and their authority all derive from the end which obedience to them serves.”
If academic freedom must be restricted at all—to avoid a state of utter moral license—all such coherent restrictions must be directed towards the same end. The University of Notre Dame as an institution must have a purpose that aims at some perfection, such as providing a formative education according to the teaching of the Catholic faith. Regardless of the specific purpose, all restrictions of academic freedom—an aspect of the school’s moral rules—must be directed towards this perfection.
In dealing with issues of when to restrict speech or “freedom” on campus, Notre Dame need not look further than the teachings of the faith she professes. The Catholic Church herself provides the necessary directed, coherent moral framework—perhaps the only such framework in the world.
If Notre Dame cannot, when confronted directly with the prescient issues, clean up her bookstore; agree to a student proposed pornography filter; and take a declarative stance supporting the unborn—she has no reasonable justification for taking any moral positions.
The only coherent policy decision for Notre Dame is not between a Catholic monoculture and loosely Catholic, morally ambiguous obfuscation. Rather, it is between housing libertines and attempting to form the characters of the next generation of Americans. The choice is hers.
W. Joseph DeReuil is a junior from St. Paul, MN studying philosophy and classics. He is probably on the phone with one of his six siblings or his parents right now, but when he is done he will respond to any query sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Matthew Rice