This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at 1:10.

Soon after the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol riot, many higher-ed professionals began asking how we can proactively tie our work to political concerns, contribute to democracy, and help students create a more just and inclusive society. In light of the Capitol riot, we, too, reflected on the purpose of our work and higher education in general. Did we do (or not do) something to contribute to the current state of affairs? 

Some scholars will surely decide that they were not political enough in their courses or their scholarship. Indeed, as the old saying goes, if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. For us, however, the Capitol riot underscores the need to recover the original meaning of academic freedom as a freedom from political pressure. We assert that academic work serves democracy only when it is shielded from the demands of those whose primary concern is victory in the day-to-day political and ideological contests that constitute democracy.

The Capitol riot highlighted the necessity of a shared understanding and faith in the institutions that support our nation in order for our democracy to function. As many commentators have stated, the loss of faith in and credibility of the institutions supporting the nation — such as science, objective judicial decision-making, free and independent news media, and free and fair elections — spells the demise of trust in democracy itself. Increasingly, people do not trust that these institutions make fair, nonpartisan decisions. If people do not trust the media, for instance, then the media loses its ability to hold the powerful accountable. This crisis of trust in our institutions was evident when many citizens regarded the statements of a political party that appealed the presidential election results as equivalent to the statements of the judges who examined the evidence presented by the political group. The federal judicial system, not unlike the academy, is designed so that the decisions of judges are protected from the political concerns and temporary passions of the public. 

While the institution of higher education is attacked and de-funded by a number of social forces, its credibility is no less crucial for democracy. Institutions of higher education work to promote rationality through systems of checks and balances that prioritize evidence and reason over will and power. Even amid errors in execution, peer review and faculty governance of the hiring, review, promotion, and discipline processes are intended to sideline irrationality, superstition, and political interference. In contrast, if higher education professionals see themselves as accountable to politics, rather than to standards of truth and methodology, they will contribute to undermining society’s trust in the independently produced results from inquiry that democratic institutions require.

Scholars who characterize their own scholarship as in pursuit of their preferred ideological disposition, or for communities and causes with which they are politically aligned — variously described as “scholar activism,” making “politics our job description,” or “bullying back” — undermine the credibility of scholarship. Trying to be part of the solution is less and less distinguishable from the problem itself. If we want academic work and higher education to support our democracy, and effectively contribute to freedom struggles, in the long term, scholars will need to declare their professional allegiance not to political causes but to the scholarly standards of truth and method in their discipline. 

As tempting as it may be to respond to the frightening insurrection of Jan. 6 by banishing certain opinions or declaring allegiance with certain political movements, that would be succumbing to the tribalist temptations that undermine our search for truth. Upholding the principle of academic freedom upholds the purpose of the university as an institution that promotes rationality and whose credibility rests, like our judicial branch, on not being beholden to a political group or ideology. For just as the foundational ideal of the U.S. Constitution holds that citizens belong to one nation regardless of their ethnicity or religion, the foundational ideal of higher education in our country maintains that scholars pursue and teach truth, understood as results derived from the rigorous application of method, regardless of such identitarian or ideological categories. 

The rigorous application of method, of course, will sometimes lead to results that cast into doubt received wisdom and public opinion, leading to both partisan resistance as well as partisan uptake. And the very choice of subject matter for scholarly inquiry can have “political” consequences insofar as results from the application of method concerning previously settled truths often open up avenues of partisan appropriation that would have otherwise remained blocked. This does not change the fact, however, that the acts of inquiry and teaching are only political insofar as the rigorous application of method is always a threat to those who would attempt to insulate received wisdom and seemingly settled truths from further inquiry. In other words, academic work is political “only” in the most grand sense possible: It resists the colonization of the whole world by those who would make truth serve power. Instead, academic teaching and research rests explicitly on maintaining a space in which inquiry can proceed unmolested by partisans and activists who prefer some truths at the expense of others.

Acknowledging that academic work is political in this grand sense does not, however, give license to faculty members to use their positions to push political agendas in their scholarship or in their classrooms. Rather, we must strive to protect the scholarly enterprise from the agendas of activists and partisans inside the academy no less than those applying pressure from without. This is because scholarship is only of value if the results derived from the rigorous application of method are understood as protected from the desires and designs of activists and partisans. Without this kind of trust in the scholarly enterprise, its value to democracy is lost and the academy becomes just another political lobbying organization indistinguishable from all the rest.

The Capitol riot can be seen as a function, at least in part, of the increasing absence of public trust in institutions charged with distinguishing truth from error (journalistic, legal, and scholarly). The Capitol riot reminds us that the most important thing scholars can offer a democracy is credible knowledge claims. The only way to be credible and trustworthy is by doing our best to keep political pressures (whether from the right or the left) from being perceived as setting the agenda of our teaching and scholarship. If scholars don’t want to be censored whenever an activist, religious, or other group decides their findings are offensive, then we must use academic freedom as a shield, not as a sword. In other words, academic freedom protects scholars from those who want to impose a political agenda on their academic projects, but does not give scholars license to pursue a political agenda in their research or teaching. 

The great test of higher education today is our commitment to academic freedom and the concomitant commitment to discovery and truth. Academic freedom holds power and politics in restraint by the rigorous adherence to method and the requirements of our scholarly guild. We answer to that guild — and not to the government, college administrators, wealthy alumni donors, religious groups, corporations, or activists. In this way, scholars are expressly not of the people, our findings are not by the people, and we work only indirectly for the people. This freedom from politics enables our scholarship, and higher education as an institution, to serve the public by offering research-based, non-ideological results from inquiry upon which all parties, including those engaged in freedom struggles, can credibly draw.