In an 11,000-word statement released by higher education think tank, National Association of Scholars this week, NAS President Peter Wood discussed at length the subject of academic freedom. The statement, titled “The Architecture of Intellectual Freedom,” was delivered following a season of particularly vocal and aggressive social justice movements addressing race, free speech and sexual violence on college campuses.

More specifically, Wood’s remarks address the emergence of “trigger warnings,” the push for “safe spaces,” the Black Lives Matter movement and other campus protests of recent months. The statement includes a suggestion that many of these demands are not actually “just” at all but, rather, are an “assault on the concepts of both academic freedom and intellectual freedom.”

Wood asserts that these calls, though viewed by many as exercises in academic freedom, actually smother liberty.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and activists hold signs during a rally supporting affirmative action held at the MIT student center in 2003. (Douglas McFadd/Getty Images)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology students and activists hold signs during an on-campus rally supporting affirmative action. (Douglas McFadd/Getty Images)

“In seeking to suppress images, names and ideas and prevent others from expressing their views, the protesters efface the promise of freedom,” Wood wrote.

The statement argues that, in addition to preparing students for their careers, colleges and universities should provide students with an education in culture, truth and character.

Above all, according to Wood, most people desire “a form of education that teaches young men and women how to be free.” It is this type of education that think tanks like NAS strive to promote through research and networking with liberty-minded scholars.

“Intellectual freedom is one of the foundational principles of higher education,” Wood said. “Colleges and universities exist to further the pursuit of knowledge, through teaching old truths and discovering new ones. Both tasks depend crucially on freedom.”

According to NAS, intellectual freedom, though a prominent value, must be joined with other principles. Intellectual freedom does not mean, for example, the freedom to block out ideas and points of view with which students disagree.

“Hearing directly from people you disagree and listening carefully to what they say is indispensable,” Wood said. “[Students] demand the right to protest but don’t realize that, on campus, such protest comes with the obligation to let others have their say.”

Wood also said that both advocates and critics of campus protests often violate the doctrine of academic freedom. “Freedom on campus is not just for speaking your mind. It is for listening to others, seeking truth, and shaping ideas worthy of respect.”

The statement suggests that those who declare free expression “a social evil that ought to be suppressed” typically see free expression itself as “a mask of oppression worn by privileged elites intent on subjugating others” or the intellectually strong reigning over the weak. But the solution, Wood explained, is not to curtail or eliminate freedom.

Wood explained that intellectual freedom is like a stone in an arch.

“It cannot hold itself up in midair. But when it is buttressed by other stones, the arch is powerful. The other stones are a genuine diversity of ideas; the colleges’ curriculum; respect for individual independence of mind; treating those who disagree with civility; and pursuing the truth, no matter if runs against your prior beliefs.”

Read the full statement here.


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