Reviews | Establishing freedom: contested, changing, conflicting definitions
News that the University of Texas at Austin is courting donors for a Liberty Institute is a reminder of the danger of ideology undermining university life. Provost Sharon Wood, responding to professors’ concerns, said that the aim of such an institute would be to “look at problems from several points of view”, but the skepticism is justified.
UT trustee records describe an institute that is “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual freedom, limited government, private enterprise and free markets” and promotes “intellectual diversity” . Most people, including me, support individual freedom. The remaining sentences are highly ideological and should be in scary quotes.
Does “limited government” enhance individual freedom, or does it really mean using the power of government to protect concentrated wealth and limit our collective ability to create a decent society? Does “private enterprise” really mean allowing corporations to use this concentrated wealth to undermine democratic decision-making? Do these companies defend “free markets” only as long as they can profit from it, running to government for bailouts when they fail?
If an institute doesn’t make room for these kinds of questions, what kind of freedom would a Liberty Institute stand for?
I am a retired professor from UT and I no longer have a direct professional interest in the result. But during my 26 years in journalism school, I regularly taught media law and the First Amendment. For the past seven years, I have taught a course called “Freedom: Philosophy, History and Law” as part of the university’s first-year interdisciplinary program. We started by reading the classic book On Liberty by John Stuart Mill to lay down the philosophical terms of the debate, then we focused on the history of the United States with The Story of American Freedom by Eric Foner, ending with readings on the contemporary pornography debate.
My thesis was simple: the definition of liberty and liberty is always contested (at some point, people in a society disagree); constantly evolving (over time, the understanding of societies will change); and always in conflict (we fight because there are no simple policies to maximize freedom).
The aim was to go beyond slogans and dogmas to meet the challenges of modern life in large and complex societies, which should be one of the core missions of higher education. I have never hidden my own political and moral conclusions, explaining to students that everyone’s education has politics, but education is more than politics. I thought Mill had defined freedom well. I thought Foner had done a good job pointing out how white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism had often distorted the understanding of freedom throughout our history. And I thought the radical feminist critique of pornography and male sexual exploitation of women was compelling.
In a course on freedom, I was particularly careful to remind students that other conclusions were consistent and defensible. Some right-wing and conservative students disagreed with the points I had made, as did some left-wing and liberal students. My mantra in the course was “reasonable people can disagree,” repeated so often that at the end of a semester a student gave me a cup of coffee with this phrase on it. This gift was a highlight of my teaching career, as the student recognized that I was not trying to impose a “correct” definition of freedom, but rather to challenge students to think more deeply about freedom. concept, to go beyond slogans and dogmas.
Back to the Liberty Institute: I do not reject the promotion of individual freedom as a goal, just as I do not reject racial justice, sexual / gender justice, economic justice, or ecological sustainability as legitimate goals of academic work. A university should be relevant in our collective effort to create more just and sustainable social systems, and groups of academics should be able to come together to pursue different perspectives on how to achieve this.
My question relates to “intellectual diversity”. Would the faculty of such an institute ask questions about the relationship between individual freedom and contested, shifting and conflicting notions of limited government, private enterprise, and free markets? Or, would an institute be satisfied with slogans and dogmas?
Today, right-wing forces challenge liberal and left-wing ideas about justice and sustainability, which are part of a healthy intellectual and political culture, when done with respect. In my experience at UT, there were too many dogmas and too many slogans on the liberal / left side of the fence. Are these right-wing forces ready to conform to the same standards? I have always believed that I could defend my own teaching on these issues consistent with the university’s mission to promote critical and independent thinking. When I have been challenged – and I have been criticized by both the right and the left throughout my career – I have always taken these challenges seriously and responded.
Reasonable people can disagree, and a university should be a place where these disagreements are celebrated. It would be a good starting point for a Liberty Institute.