Skip to content

What History Teaches Us About the Importance of Academic Freedom

This 1949 primer shows us there’s nothing new about today’s controversies about free speech on campus.

· 12 min read
What History Teaches Us About the Importance of Academic Freedom
L-R Oliver Wendell Holmes, Francis Bacon, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Jefferson, and James Bryant Conant.

A review of the Primer of Intellectual Freedom, edited by Howard Mumford-Jones (Harvard UP, 1949).

In 2015, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) recorded 24 incidents of censorship on university and college campuses. Despite FIRE’s significant efforts and the expansion of its remit, by 2020 that number had risen to 113. Efforts to censure campus speech have occurred in almost every American state. The problem is not new. Advocates of academic censorship would do well to review the arguments of our predecessors. A little book published 74 years ago, in 1949, by Harvard University Press provides an opportunity to do just that. While the book focuses on American history, its insights are of worldwide relevance.

Primer of Intellectual Freedom, edited by Howard Mumford Jones, contains excerpts from everyone from Francis Bacon to Thomas Jefferson, John Stuart Mill, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Bryant Conant. It provides a fitting reminder that there’s nothing new about today’s controversies about free speech on campus. While the more recent arguments presented in the book are almost a century old, they have lost none of their power and relevance. The book traces the deep historical roots of current attitudes towards speech and censorship by citing similar opinions from the past and hence demonstrating the perennial nature of the battle for free expression. Second-hand copies of the book are still available online.

In his introduction, Jones observes that “it is always easier to suppress criticism than to meet it.” The intellectual liberty of dissenters is always in need of a defense since society is “continually under the pressure of numbers to revert to the herd.” Those pressures over four centuries elicited the thoughtful and passionate writings that fill the book.

The selections are presented in reverse chronological order. They begin with a 1949 statement by Massachusetts Institute of Technology president James Rhyne Killian regarding the trial of Professor Dirk Struik. Struik was accused of Communist sympathies because he had lectured on revolution and served as a trustee of the Jefferson School of Social Science, which a Saturday Evening Post article had described as a “nest of reds.” Killian asserted that MIT “is unequivocally opposed to Communism,” but that it is less dangerous to allow a few communists to proselytize in America than to allow the fear of communism to “cause America to relinquish or distort or weaken basic civil rights.” MIT, Killian declared, “is … sternly opposed to the Communistic method of dictating to scholars the opinions they must have and the doctrines they must teach.”

The book also contains the statements of two other university presidents: University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins’ 1949 testimony before the Subversive Activities Commission of the Illinois State Legislature and an excerpt from Harvard president James Bryant Conant’s 1948 book Education in a Divided World: The Function of the Public School in Our Unique Society.

Hutchins was summoned to testify before the Broyles Commission after professors at the University of Chicago and Roosevelt College were accused of being communists and engaging in subversive activities. He told the commission that “the study of communism is not a subversive activity.” In the same vein, Conant writes that “studying a philosophy does not mean endorsing it.” This is an important distinction that should apply to the study of controversial topics like Critical Race Theory today.

Conant also urges universities to ensure “that we have a variety of views represented and that in the classroom our teachers be careful scholars rather than propagandists.” Hutchins also emphasized the value of opinion diversity, deploring the fact that it had become “fashionable to call anybody with whom you disagree a Communist or a fellow-traveler.” Numerous recent studies show that the opinion diversity Hutchins advocated has not been realized. In 2017, Jonathan Haidt reported that 60 percent of faculty were far left or liberal, while only 13 percent were far right or conservative. A 2023 Heterodox Academy report found a similar disparity. And today, the trend is to label opponents racist, white supremacist, or transphobic.

The excerpt from Conant’s book is prefaced by part of a 1949 letter from Grenville Clark, a senior member of the Harvard Corporation, to Harvard benefactor Frank B. Ober. Ober was threatening to discontinue his financial support of the college if its professors were allowed to voice opinions “hostile to our own country.” His ire was particularly roused by English professor John Ciardi, who participated in a rally opposing anti-Communist legislation and astronomy professor Harlow Shapley, who chaired a 1949 Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace, alleged by Ober to be a communist front. Clark tells Ober that to discipline these professors “would be to repudiate the very essence of what Harvard stands for—the search for truth by a free and uncoerced body of students and teachers.”

In support of this, Clark cites Conant’s 1936 speech at the Harvard Tercentenary Celebration: “we must have a spirit of tolerance which allows the expression of all opinions however heretical.” He also appeals to Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s 1869 inaugural address, in which Eliot declared that “the winnowing breeze of freedom must blow through all [Harvard’s] chambers.” This metaphor recurs later in the book, in an 1894 statement of the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents exonerating economics professor Richard T. Ely, who was accused of “heretical and seditious” conduct for “interfering in a strike of the printing trade.” Their response: “Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the great state university of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”

Clark also reminds Ober of some of the ways in which Harvard upheld free speech during the period of “easy fears” following the First World War. For example, then Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell defended Professor Zechariah Chafee, who had fallen under suspicion for siding with the defendants in a 1919 Espionage Act trial in which several Russian immigrants were sentenced to 20 years in prison for distributing leaflets critical of the United States’ intervention in the Bolshevik revolution. Lowell “took an unequivocal position in defense of the professor’s right to espouse an unpopular cause” and the complaint was dismissed.

The book later adds further context to this case by reprinting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent from the Supreme Court ruling in Abrams v. United States, which upheld the conviction of Jacob Abrams and his fellow immigrants. Holmes also dissented in the similar cases of Gitlow v. New York, in which the Court upheld a conviction for the publication of a “left-wing manifesto,” and United States v. Schwimmer. In the latter case, he famously wrote: “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”

Clark also cites the case of instructor Harold J. Laski. After people called for his dismissal from Harvard for defending the 1919 Boston police strike, President Lowell “stood firmly for Mr. Laski’s right to speak his mind.” Clark’s letter notes that thirty years later, in 1949, Laski (then a professor at the London School of Economics) was barred from speaking at a Boston school because he was an outspoken proponent of Marxism. He was, however, allowed to speak at Harvard.

In his letter to Ober, Clark also quotes two defenses of free speech that seem especially relevant today. The first is taken from essayist E. B. White’s 1946 book The Wild Flag:

Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. But how can we possibly expect most of the people to be right most of the time if they are taught by men and women … who are constrained to work under conditions where they may lose their jobs if … they attend meetings that some, or even a majority of the moment, do not approve?

The second is from Harvard President Charles W. Eliot’s 1869 inaugural address:

The notion that education consists in the authoritative inculcation of what the teacher deems true may be logical and appropriate in a convent, or a seminary for priests, but it is intolerable in universities and public schools.

Together, these complementary statements imply that teachers and professors should be free to speak out and even engage in activism in support of their political convictions, but not to penalize students who do not share those convictions. They should be permitted, Clark argues, “to speak their minds as public citizens and to pursue truth without constraint, but not to use their position in the university to indoctrinate their students.”

The book also includes a short 1949 statement by Harvard Dean Wilbur J. Bender in defense of the John Reed Club’s right to host the speaker Gerhard Eisler at Harvard. Eisler was then under sentence for refusing to answer questions about the Communist Party before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Bender had received hundreds of letters asking for Eisler’s speaking invitation to be rescinded. He observed: “If the Dean’s Office were to attempt to decide who would be allowed to speak to a Harvard organization, whose views were safe and whose weren’t, the views of those permitted to speak would then carry Harvard’s official endorsement.” Bender’s statement provides a model for present-day deans pressured to provide safe spaces and cancel controversial speakers: “The world is full of dangerous ideas, and we are both naïve and stupid if we believe that the way to prepare intelligent young men to face the world is to try to protect them from such ideas while they are in college.” As the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Report makes clear, there is a difference, as Bender notes, between allowing an idea to be voiced or discussed on campus and officially endorsing that idea as an institution.

Henry Steele Commager’s 1947 Harper’s Magazine article “Who is Loyal to America?” makes a similar point. Russian-born immigrant Shura Lewis had given a talk at a Washington D.C. high school about life in the Soviet Union. The subject matter caused outrage: students walked out in protest; parents were incensed; journalists wrote fevered editorials; and the talk was even condemned in Congress. The local superintendent of schools, Dr Hobart Corning, described the fact that the talk was permitted to go ahead as “contrary to the philosophy of education under which we operate.” But “what can be that ‘philosophy of education,’” asks Commager, “which believes that young people can be trained to the duties of citizenship by wrapping their minds in cotton-wool?”

From a focus on politics, the book turns to science. In his 1892 essay “The Scope and Method of Science,” Karl Pearson asserts that there “is no shortcut to truth.” Science, he argues, should never be limited by ideological or religious dogma. We “cannot allow the theologian or metaphysician, those Portuguese of the intellect, to establish a right to the foreshore of our present ignorance, and so hinder the settlement … of vast and yet unknown continents of thoughts.” Likewise, in his 1874 essay “The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration,” Walter Bagehot explains that, although “the spectacle of a different belief from ours is disagreeable to us,” open discussion is crucial to the process of truth-seeking. The process, Bagehot writes, is like

a Court of Inquisition sitting perpetually, investigating, informally and silently … truth and error. There is no sort of infallibility about the court; often it makes great mistakes, most of its decisions are incomplete in thought and imperfect in expression. Still, on the whole, the force of evidence keeps it right. The truth has the best of the proof, and therefore wins most of the judgments. The process is slow … Yet … it creeps along, if you do not stop it. But all is arrested, if persecution begins—if you have a coup d’état, and let loose soldiers on the court; for it is perfect chance … what creed they are used to compel men to believe.

John Morley’s 1874 essay “Intellectual Responsibility and the Political Spirit” focuses on another threat to truth-seeking: the natural human tendency to avoid conflict that often motivates self-censorship. Morley counsels that “in settling with ourselves whether propositions purporting to state matters of fact are true or not, we have to consider how far they are conformable to the evidence. We have nothing to do with the comfort and solace which they would be likely to bring to others or ourselves, if they were taken as true.” Morley’s essay recognizes that controversial views are likely to cause offense, but he surely could not have anticipated the safe spaces and constraints on speech instituted by many present-day universities.

At the heart of the book is a lengthy excerpt from John Stuart Mill’s 1859 “On Liberty”—a text that should be required reading for every educator. For Mill, to silence an opinion merely because it is unpopular is to assume that those who subscribe to the received opinion must be infallible. Even a view that is wrong may contain part of the truth. And, even if the status quo view is correct, if we force people to pay lip service to it, whether or not they believe it, it will degenerate into “a mere formal profession, inefficacious for good … and preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.” Mill also warns that people are easily intimidated into silence: “vituperation … on the side of prevailing opinion really does deter people from professing contrary opinion, and from listening to those who profess them,” especially if people “stigmatize those who hold the contrary opinion [to the current orthodoxy] as bad and immoral men.” A climate of social intolerance of this kind can encourage a stultifying conformity of opinion without requiring “the unpleasantness of fining or imprisoning anybody.” But “the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification,” writes Mill, “is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”

To those who would constrain discussion because the truth is settled, Mill writes: “There is a great difference between presuming an opinion to be true, because, with every opportunity for contesting it, it has not been refuted, and assuming its truth for the purpose of not permitting its refutation.” To those who would insist that we should stop discussing certain topics because it’s time to act, Mill counters that “complete liberty of contradicting and disproving our opinion is the very condition which justifies us in assuming its truth for purposes of action.” Contrary to those who insist that only people with the relevant ‘lived experience’ can judge the truth of a proposition, Mill argues that we cannot be guided by experience alone: “[t]here must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted.” It is of limited use to hear unpopular views explained by those who do not share them, “presented as they state them, so accompanied by what they offer as refutations.” It is especially important, he urges, that we hear such views from “persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their utmost for them.” If we have not heard the strongest arguments for the opposition, Mill writes, the “rational position … would be suspension of judgment.”

The same principles underlie Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural address and his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, both included in this anthology. At a time of great uncertainty about the future of the United States, Jefferson nevertheless opposed laws to outlaw seditious speech, arguing that “error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.” To protect free speech, Jefferson argues in the bill, is also to protect people’s right to use truth’s “natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”

In Areopagitica, his 1644 pamphlet opposing the Licensing Act, John Milton similarly argues that to restrict the freedom to publish is “to the discouragement of all learning, and the stop of Truth, not only by disexercising and blunting all abilities in what we know already, but by hindering and cropping the discovery that might be yet further made,” since, in order to discover the truth, we must take into consideration “all opinions, yea errors, known, read, and collated.”

Milton is especially scathing about those censors who want to bowdlerize texts to make them “safe” for ordinary readers. In an observation relevant to those who wish to sanitize the language of deceased writers like Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Doctor Seuss, and Roald Dahl, Milton warns that “the fearfulness or presumptuous rashness” of such censors is likely to ruin the style of good books—the “dash,” as he calls it—and distort the meaning—“the sense … shall to all posterity be lost.” It is also, he points out, extremely condescending to readers. It is “to the common people [nothing] less than a reproach … what do we but censure them for a giddy, vicious, and ungrounded people” if we believe them “able to take nothing down but through the pipe [straw] of a licenser?”

The collection ends with the writer with whom, according to the editor, “it all began”: Francis Bacon. Back in 1605, Bacon already sought to defend learning “against the kind of attack it experiences today.” In the conclusion to Book I of The Advancement of Learning, he argues that we should allow all opinions to be voiced freely if we want to separate truth from falsehood, to “reject vain speculations and whatsoever is empty and void, and … preserve and augment whatsoever is solid and fruitful.”

Primer for Intellectual Freedom presents defenses of freedom of expression by luminaries ranging from Francis Bacon to university presidents James Rhyne Killian, Robert Maynard Hutchins, and James Bryant Conant. Their rational and impassioned arguments are no less persuasive today than they were in 1949. But today, we find precious few academic leaders with the courage and commitment to insist that education and the pursuit of truth are dependent on unconstrained freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. As John Stuart Mill explained, those who would censure the heterodox must assume themselves to be infallible. But neither any individual member of a university, nor any university itself, is infallible. To discipline or censure those who question orthodoxy will, in Grenville Clark’s words “repudiate the very essence” of what universities must stand for: “the search for truth by a free and uncoerced body of students of teachers.”

Latest Podcast

Join the newsletter to receive the latest updates in your inbox.


On Instagram @quillette