Saturday, January 04, 2014

The Uses of (Academic) Freedom

As it happens, during the course of last few days, I came across two very specific instances of questioning the value of freedom. One was specifically about academic freedom, and the other about freedom in general. Set in context of the rhetoric that freedom is central to progress, these are rather surprising points of views, hence demand further exploration.

In the first instance, I am referring to John Morgan's China on Fast Track in Times Higher Education of 19th December. One of the central issues this article grapples with is whether the lack of academic freedom will stall the progress of Chinese universities in the global league tables. Indeed, academic freedom is sacrosanct in the Western academic circles, and that one can conduct meaningful research and teaching without the freedom to explore anything that inspires curiousity and without the freedom to express one's opinion sounds deeply anachronistic. 

Various interviews presented in this article tell of a different reality though. The most striking argument stands out: "To some, focusing on the issue of academic freedom – an almost inescapable theme in discussions in the West about Chinese universities – is to miss the point: it is similar to expecting the Chinese government to hold a planning inquiry before starting its next high-speed rail line." One Chinese scholar, an immunologist as must be noted, presents a striking perspective on the question of freedom: "Turning again to the comparison with the US, Ma says that the funder for his research there – the National Institutes of Health – would constantly revise his project outlines when he applied for funding. 'After a couple of rounds of revision, I could hardly recognise my own original idea. You had to change it otherwise you wouldn’t get the funding,' he explains. 'Here, they make suggestions, but they don’t really shape your research that much. There’s more freedom in that sense.'"

The second instance also refers to China, this time Dambisa Moyo's talk in Ted in June 2013, where she makes the point that freedom may be of secondary importance for those citizens of Asian or African countries which is trying to get out of poverty. I have posted the talk here, not because I necessarily agree with what she says - I actually don't and more in that subsequently - but this is a striking assertion worth pondering about.


[What struck me most is that Ms Moyo's assertion that freedom is less important than prosperity comes from her insights coming from discussions with Presidents, Ministers and Intellectuals in Asia, Africa and Latin America (she does talk to the proverbial man on the street, but possibly on city streets and wearing suits).]

Indeed, these two pieces are classic West versus China, freedom versus prosperity and progress. The fact that the Western love for democracy was extremely superficial and to be abandoned in the first instance (consider the case of Iran in 1956, but many other cases from all over the world) was overlooked in Ms Moyo's presentation. Also, that academic freedom is not really freedom, but the right for the academic community to self-censor, is only a moot point. But, in context of the bold claims that were made in two cases, such oversights are problematic.

The point of freedom, inside the academia and outside, is not just about progress and prosperity, growth and ranking. Freedom's greatest use is the creation of opportunity, and the ability of the underdog, the marginal, to participate in the process. And, indeed, freedom is only an ideal: It is only a possibility today and a very fragile possibility, with many enemies. To discard this ideal for prosperity or convenience feels like a mistake. The Chinese universities may achieve league table success, but without freedom of thought and expression, they may not be able to impact their societies (not that I think universities particularly care); without freedom, countries may prosper for a while, but that prosperity is likely to degenerate as the elite pockets the proceeds and degeneration sets in.

So, in conclusion, I believe these discussions are misdirected, intentionally or otherwise. The point why freedom is needed has not been answered, and instead, it was just treated as a means to a goal which it was not designed to serve.

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