Ummm, we need to talk. It’s about academic freedom.

No, I thought to myself. Why on earth would I archive this story about some schmuck who intends to launch a rocket as one step in his quest to prove the earth is flat?[1]

So then, I was thinking to myself about academic freedom. And how we are or would be in academia bandy the term about as if we all know what it really means. And maybe never really thinking about it.

And yet, as we all know and will all vigorously affirm, it is essential to inquiry.

Which is a way in which I think our mission as academics differs from what the public sees as our mission, the latter being a route to prosperity for their kids; and our mission actually being as researchers as well as educators, acquiring, producing, preserving, and disseminating knowledge and skills, including the skills needed for inquiry (did I leave anything out there?).

When I think of those universities, those monasteries, those Arab scholars, who in the early Middle Ages preserved the knowledge of the Roman Empire, these are my heroes, for they fulfilled a sacred duty to future generations. This is core to who we are.

As it is core that we seek to improve that knowledge for the common good. Inquiry takes multiple forms, but one surely essential one involves the exchange and consideration of ideas. Which means we have to be able to explore ideas, to consider them, to understand them. We do so, surely often, even to disagree with them.

So what about that Flat Earther, anyway?

“I don’t believe in science,” [Mike] Hughes added. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”[2]

Now, I’m pretty sure that Hughes will never be proven right. But that’s not really the point.

Because every once in a while a ‘crackpot’ idea actually isn’t so far off the mark after all. Or because it helps us to understand how other people are thinking. I see something in Hughes’s words, for example, that might resemble traditionalist conservative epistemology, which offers me a possible way of understanding him.

Which means I have to be receptive to and even protective of ideas I might personally find absolutely repugnant (capitalist libertarianism comes to mind).

I have to say this because it has become apparent that academic freedom, as rooted in freedom of inquiry in the common interest, seems not to be understood by many participants in campus uprisings this year. And not just by students, but even by some professors.

Which means we have to talk. We have to talk about academic freedom.

  1. [1]Colin Dwyer, “‘I Don’t Believe In Science,’ Says Flat-Earther Set To Launch Himself In Own Rocket,” National Public Radio, November 22, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/22/565926690/i-dont-believe-in-science-says-flat-earther-set-to-launch-himself-in-own-rocket
  2. [2]Colin Dwyer, “‘I Don’t Believe In Science,’ Says Flat-Earther Set To Launch Himself In Own Rocket,” National Public Radio, November 22, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/11/22/565926690/i-dont-believe-in-science-says-flat-earther-set-to-launch-himself-in-own-rocket

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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