Norman Finkelstein On Civility and Academia

October 28, 2014

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On Civility and Academia

With regard to what is commonly meant by intemperate discussion, namely invective, sarcasm, personality, and the like, the denunciation of these weapons would deserve more sympathy if it were ever proposed to interdict them equally to both sides; but it is only desired to restrain the employment of them against the prevailing opinion; against the unprevailing, they may not only be used without general disapproval, but will be likely to obtain for him who uses them the praise of honest zeal and righteous indignation.

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty


The notion of academic freedom captures several distinct claims. It asserts that academic peers are best placed to judge scholarly competence and accordingly that on all such professional matters they should be granted autonomy. This component of academic freedom is designed to preempt extra-scholarly considerations from tainting employment decisions. Beyond the right to professional autonomy, academic freedom also asserts that pursuit of the life of the mind requires complete liberty of thought. Insofar as the academic community is devoted to attaining truth, its mission cannot be realized if barriers restrict the mind from meandering down paths of inquiry less traveled. The right of an academic to liberty of thought additionally means that outside the professional setting, scholars should enjoy the ordinary rights of a democratic citizen to speak their minds and accordingly that extramural utterances should not bear on the assessment of professional competence. Historically, the great battles over academic freedom in the United States were fought first to free university life from the hold of clerical bias (sponsored by private denominations, American colleges were originally the “ward of religion”), then economic bias (in particular, corporate interference),[i] and then political bias (the periodic Red Scares climaxing in McCarthyism).[ii]

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