What follows is a piece that was originally published in July 2009. Given the issues at many U.S. colleges, such as Mr. Jefferson’s University in Virginia, or the funding challenges at all public universities in the land, fundamental mission and how it is achieved becomes more important, rather than less. Revisiting the relationship between our national predisposition and the role of our universities is a moment well spent.
“Bad men cannot make good citizens. A vitiated state of morals, a corrupted public conscience are incompatible with freedom.”
Independence of thought for a collected group of people and independence of thought for an individual are so tightly wound together that you cannot have one without the other. First, the case of our nation. The coercion exercised upon the early colonists of our nation was suffocating… They could bear no more. Taxes, freedom to worship, freedom from social stratification, and freedom for opportunity to grow and change were all passions of early European citizens of the new world.
The colonists wanted to be able to pursue their own lives in their own way without the intervention of any government, near or far. While it was freedom from English law and rebellion against coercion that lit the fuse, freedom from all coercion carried the spark to the charge.
I re-read Thomas Paine’s ‘Common Sense’ a few times recently. I consider myself reasonably thoughtful and able to understand complex ideas. I was taken by the simplicity of the ideas Paine so graphically portrayed in his pamphlet, but perplexed by the depth and pervasiveness of them from another perspective.
As I reflected on my small view of this great expression – person for person the most widely read document ever produced and circulated on the continent of North America – a number of emotions ran through my mind.
I was, and I am still moved by a kind of patriotism that I know many of us feel for our nation. A freedom to pursue personal faith, a pride in individuality, a freedom of expression of thought or a way of life that is particular to any one of us, unencumbered by intervention of any kind from any person, or any place.
What does this have to do with our universities?
Not to over-make the case, I would argue that tenure provides to a faculty member the provision that our forefathers fought for, so that any man or woman might have the opportunity to think freely.
The coercion that happens at many universities today is not the same as the one faced at the birth of our nation. What was English was known to be English, and it was clear to many colonists that England was a coercive force.
Coercive forces today lack that clarity in universities, and they have for a very long time. Contemporary coercion comes in disguise, not in a Red Coat.
Coercion caused Galileo’s excommunication for the idea of a helio-centric universe. It undermined the authority of the Catholic Church in the eyes of leadership at that time.
It was coercion that made the Protestantism of mid-twentieth century Yale University so challenging for a Catholic boy named William F. Buckley. He should have thanked God he wasn’t Jewish.
It is coercion that makes traditional expressions of faith unacceptable in contemporary universities. This is the coercion of trying to live in an offense-less society… a society where your ideas might offend another. This impossibility might be the most noxious form of coercion in any setting.
It chokes free thought.
Our nation might be giving up certain freedoms through the force of courts, and our political leadership may be allowing and encouraging that strangulation for the friendship of the ballot box. Academic freedom should be maintained at all costs.
Coercion against intellectual freedom from any source, no matter how well intended, will undermine the nature of our universities as surely as British rule undermined the freedom of this colony to pursue its destiny.
Our nation’s freedoms should ensure the academic freedoms of the university as surely as those same freedoms ensure the freedom of family, faith, and friendship.
Our universities should abound with patriotism for the power of Independence Day.