Academic Freedom

By Fr. Ranhilio Callangan Aquino
Manila Standard Today

Michael Polanyi explains his principle of the “coordination of independent initiatives” by a very interesting analogy. If a considerably large group of people were to work on a considerably large jigsaw puzzle, each holding a piece, the only way the pieces could come meaningfully together would be to leave each free, in full view of others, to try to fit the piece into the whole, to confer, to exchange and to discuss with others, until all pieces fit together. Let us assume, of course, that no one really knows what the puzzle pictures when fully assembled. Then the result of the collective endeavor will be unpremeditated. It will not do to lay down rules on how each player moves; this would hinder efficiency. But it is equally clear that what the coordinated effort will achieve far exceeds what any single individual can.

From this, Polanyi argues, the scientific endeavor is most fruitful when each scientist is left to his own initiative and when there is self-coordination, with scientists engaged in non-regulated exchange and collaboration free of all forms of constraint or restraint. Any authority directing the autonomy of the scientist and of the scientific community would bring growth to a standstill. So it is that while there are things we would prefer scientists to get to work on—the cure for dreaded maladies, for example—rather than what in difficult times may seem to be mindless luxuries like the latest in anti-ageing unguents and enhancers of sexual prowess, on the whole, it is still best to leave the scientific community to itself and to its self-regulation.

Academic freedom is a kindred spirit. In a sense, the human mind needs no law to convince it of its freedom. Rahner puts it wonderfully: The horizon of questioning is infinite, and questions may be directed at anything, including the questioner himself. But the concept had to be articulated with some degree of judicial precision because of what politics and law may do to the freedom of inquiry and the liberty of research. The great and perennial problems of humankind as well as its quotidian concerns are best addressed when thinking men and women are free to ask, free to exchange, free to propose answers and free to convince others of the correctness of their answers. Paradoxically what pushes human inquiry toward infinite frontiers is the ever-present awareness of the finiteness of human knowledge. Science, Popper usefully instructs, consists not in the accumulation of theories but in their constant overthrow and their replacement by new and better ones. This view may receive a more sympathetic listening among post-moderns for whom textuality means one reading among different possible variant readings to which we must now pay heed, if we muster the courage and the integrity to depart from the canonized readings by which the powerful have ruled the earth. There is, as I have always insisted, a social dimension to academic freedom in that it allows what the majority or the dominant may think to be unworthy of attention and credence a fair hearing—and a chance to become the narrative of choice, at least for now. [...]

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