(Academic) Freedom, I write your name (*)

September 4, 2021

An important independent Scientific and Technical Commission on the Recognition of Academic Freedom in the University Environment is currently underway (Quebec Ministry of Education). Its report is expected this fall. Freedom of expression is a founding value of a society that wants to come as close as possible to the ideal of a liberal democracy. It is a combination of a liberal political ideal that gives a cardinal value to the individual, to all individuals, recognized as holders of rights and freedoms, and an ideal of rationality, stemming from the Enlightenment, which is convinced that truth is approachable and that it is one of the sine qua non conditions of social and human progress.

When John Stuart Mill affirms, in On Liberty, that even if all in a society defended a point of view except one person, who would reject it, this person should be able to express his idea, it is this double ideal that inspires him. And when he maintains – a remark of crucial importance – that one does not even know what one thinks if one has not been confronteded with the ideas of those who think the opposite, it is again this same double ideal that inspires him.

This, we can guess, has important repercussions in education. To educate everyone in such a way as to make them autonomous and capable of taking part in the democratic conversation is a duty of the current generation towards the next generation. Here, we are talking about children or young people, and a great concern must be to transmit knowledge and not to indoctrinate.

At the university, it is obviously different. We are in an institution for adults, dedicated to the transmission and discovery of knowledge. The principle of open debate, potentially to all ideas, is crucial here.

We know what protects and should, in everyone’s eyes, protect this “academic freedom” and set its limits: the laws on freedom of expression. These laws ensure, among other things, that one cannot, in the university as elsewhere, prohibit speaking and expressing oneself in all possible ways simply because what is being said is offensive to some.

But while we must always fear possible censorship by the state, what threatens freedom at the university today lies elsewhere. These threats are significant and serious. They include terrifying bans on speech, the obscuring of research topics, and self-censorship.

The feedback I have from this parliamentary committee leads me to believe that these serious issues are not being avoided.

The current threats

If I had to describe the most serious of these threats, I would call them “the enemy within,” the one that has been allowed to enter and that threatens university life and therefore the mission of the university for which the public funds it.

Of course, the situation varies from university to university, from discipline to discipline, and from department to department. We would like to have an objective picture of what is threatening freedom at the university. Without exhausting the subject, here are a few plausible hypotheses suggested by certain recent events in university life here and elsewhere.

Freedom was, and still is, threatened by an activism that demands that words, events, and people be banned, and that leads to a strange attitude that spreads and makes it seem as if we know the answer before we start looking for it.

Threatened also by certain forms of commercialization of research, by the imposition of research objects by it and by the claim of ownership of the results; by this demand to practice subsidized research everywhere, even where free and unfunded research is useful and sometimes even necessary; by these sorry predatory journals; by this promotion of epistemological relativism that has been plaguing part of the life of ideas for decades – thanks to you for reminding us of this, Alan Sokal, and more recently Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose.

There are many causes of these threats – but in listing them, one should not overlook the important part played by clientelism and commercialism – that have contributed to making an institution more and more like an organization.

I look forward to reading this report. I hope it will not disappoint.

Normand Baillargeon, born July 6, 1958 in Valleyfield, Quebec, is a Canadian teacher and academic. A professor of education at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) from 1989 to 2015, a columnist for various alternative media and Radio-Canada from 2011 to 2016, he is also a philosopher, essayist, libertarian activist, and anarcho-syndicalist.

Normand is also a co-founder of the Association humaniste du Québec

(*) A poem by Paul Eluard made famous the expression «Liberty, I write your name».

*** Translated by Michel Virard with the considerable help of www.DeepL.com/Translator ***

Michel Virard