KNOWLES: Stop Defending ‘Academic Freedom’

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 16: Author Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks on stage during the 137th Commencement at Morehouse College on May 16, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Finally some good news on campus: Nikole Hannah-Jones has been denied tenure at the University of North Carolina. Although Hannah-Jones, the New York Times fabulist behind the anti-historical 1619 Project, had secured the endorsement of the school’s journalism department, the university’s board of trustees has intervened to deny her permanent employment.

The trustees made the right decision. Hannah-Jones has won impressive accolades, including the MacArthur “Genius Grant” and a Pulitzer Prize, but she deserves none of them. As academic historians from across the political spectrum noted when the 1619 Project first appeared, Hannah-Jones’s entire thesis depends upon a lie. “One of the primary reasons the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain,” Hannah-Jones argued, “was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

Hannah-Jones provided no evidence for her central claim because none exists. Nevertheless, the Times persisted in defending the lie for seven months, until March of 2020, when Times editors tweaked the passage to read, “One of the primary reasons some of the colonists decided to declare their independence” (emphasis mine). The claim remained incorrect — the colonists simply did not fight the Revolution to preserve slavery — but even the Times‘s modest correction conceded the point: the 1619 Project had gotten its thesis wrong.

Regardless, leftist pundits swiftly condemned UNC’s decision, resorting to typical and baseless accusations of racism, misogyny, and bigotry. Sadly, some pro-free speech organizations rushed to Nikole Hannah-Jones’s defense as well, albeit for a different reason. The decision, they feared, threatened “academic freedom.” The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), which has often valiantly fought to protect conservative students and scholars from leftist censorship on campus, announced an investigation.

“If it is accurate that this refusal was the result of viewpoint discrimination against Hannah-Jones, particularly based on political opposition to her appointment, this decision has disturbing implications for academic freedom, which is vital in allowing faculty members to voice divergent views,” FIRE fretted. “When decisions on academic tenure incorporate a form of political litmus test, this freedom is gravely compromised.” Other prominent conservatives and libertarians joined FIRE to express their concern over the fate of “academic freedom.”

But “academic freedom” as we understand the term today does not exist. It is a “hoax” and “superstition,” to borrow of words of William F. Buckley Jr., who launched both his career and the postwar conservative movement with a book inveighing against it. All universities must have a mission, Buckley argued, which means that educators must structure their lectures toward advancing that mission and leave sermons that contradict it out of the classroom. Scholars may pursue whichever intellectual pursuits they fancy on their own time and dollar, but they have no right to indoctrinate students in their nonsense.

Buckley attacked universities for justifying their godless and collectivist curricula on the basis of academic freedom over the objections of parents and alumni. “In the last analysis,” Buckley concluded, “academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support,” just as the UNC trustees have done in the case of Nikole-Hannah Jones. Buckley encouraged alumni to withhold donations until universities encouraged Christian morality and free-market economics. Today, many self-styled conservatives relegate themselves to making piddling pleas for “intellectual diversity” in the hopes that radicals don’t run them off campus altogether.

Buckley’s intellectual heirs have flipped his stance on “academic freedom” — a development I chronicle at length in my upcoming book Speechless: Controlling Words, Controlling Minds. But WFB and the countless conservatives who came before him had it right. Universities educate, which means they necessarily encourage certain ideas and discourage others. Neutrality is an illusion.

The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.

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