Once upon a time, Winston Churchill observed that “Truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” Churchill was speaking of the need for strategic security in a time of war in order to protect secret military plans. Only important actors would know the truths from the lies.
If we now turn to our current state of civic affairs, we see a very different situation. Truth does not have a bodyguard protecting her, but rather an unruly mob surrounding her – one that feeds on everything from ignorance to deliberate lying for corrupt purposes, a mob that is empowered by a non-stop, ever-present on-line system of communication. We see the general effects on our democracy and the more specific effects on how we are addressing – and, in some cases, failing to address – the current pandemic.
The search for truth in such a situation is far more challenging and significantly less straightforward. On the one hand, we need our minds to be open to entertaining information and arguments we had not considered before, including those that might be strange or even frightening. On the other, we must be able to distinguish sound, valuable information from falsehoods springing either from deliberate deception or sheer cluelessness.
Clearly, these are times when we must balance between entertaining diverse viewpoints and maintaining standards for logic, evidence, and a sincere search for getting as close to the truth as possible. We need to go beyond our own ideas and worldviews to consider those of others – this is a central part of what learning is about. At the same time, it is essential to bear in mind how we evaluate the new ideas and information we encounter. Ideally, this involves what is commonly referred to as “sourcing” or evaluating the source (e.g., author, outlet) before digesting a new piece of information. Because we cannot know everything from our direct experience, we must identify those organizations and persons whom we can reasonably consider authorities.
In this context, it is important to consider the differences between “freedom of speech” and “academic freedom.” The limits of the former have to do with threats to public safety; the limits of the latter have traditionally been defined both by general standards of scholarship and the knowledge accumulated in a specific field. A discipline-based approach makes it relatively easy to identify those who could serve as authorities; at the same time, it must incorporate a certain humility, given that what we think we know in a particular field changes over time.
This traditional, discipline-based approach to academic freedom is under pressure not only because disciplinary boundaries are becoming more blurred, but also because academics are increasingly sharing with a wider public their research and scholarship, as well as their ways of evaluating the quality of information. This sharing is all the more urgent in our internet-enhanced world, where misinformation travels swiftly, and many citizens are not equipped to discern good information from the bad.
While there had always been a tradition in America of connecting higher education to citizenship, the WWII era brought an influx of distinguished academics from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, which reinforced the discipline-based approach that focused on scholarship and research productivity (an influence that had already crossed the Atlantic in the period just after the Civil War when many faculty members returned from study in Germany). Now, we seem to see a return to a sense of higher education’s civic responsibilities.
We might bear in mind the words Christopher Lasch uttered a while back: “We will defend democracy not as the most efficient, but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment.”
As we think of the “circle of debate” we need, we find ourselves in the very terrain of Heterodox Academy – a terrain that goes beyond the more traditional approaches to academic freedom while upholding standards of discourse absent from how we generally understand freedom of speech. Not that this will be easy. Freedom of speech and academic freedom have their complexities and have occasioned their own internal disagreements. But, as challenging as the task may be, the heterodoxy we seek needs its own bodyguard, one composed of standards, sourcing, and respectful discourse.