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On academics and academic freedom

Having worked for the first part of my professional career at a college, I have a little bit of an insider’s view (or so I like to think) on what people in higher education are like and think. First, suffice it to say the old saying that “the battles in academia are so fierce because the stakes are so small” is entirely true. Aside from that, however, the following quote from Timothy O’Donnell’s article on academic freedom in this month’s Crisis magazine is something I only wish more in Catholic higher education would read and contemplate.

The university exists for one specific purpose – to help form and shape the minds of its students in their search for the acquisition of truth. In this noble effort, the cultivation of an appreciation of the good and the beautiful is also crucial, for as John Paul II stated in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the Catholic university’s goal is “to help students think rigorously, to act rightly and to serve the cause of humanity better.”

A Catholic university’s specific task is consecrated to this goal of using the light of faith and sound reason in the service of truth. In uniting these two orders, which characterize so much of what is best in the Catholic tradition – epitomized in the writings of Aquinas and many other Fathers and Doctors of the Church – there is an openness to the fullness of reality that is often lacking in the secular model of the university. Sound philosophy and theology, faithful to the roots of their disciplines, have a crucial role to play within the structure of the university community, particularly in the pursuit and preservation of academic freedom.

The article as a whole is an excellent reflection on the concept of academic freedom qua freedom. As such, it reminds us that freedom in any sense is not license, but rather ensuring the recipient has been equipped with sufficient knowledge and skills to understand how to do the right. Perhaps it is time for those in this country, indeed the rest of Western civilization, to become re-educated on exactly what true freedom is, what it entails, and what it requires. Perhaps then we could see the first steps of coming around the corner on this raggedy ride we seem to be on. One can hope.

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