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"Traditional" versus contemporary or "socially-engaged" academic freedom

How do differing views of academic freedom effect the ability of scholars, students, and the public, to ask difficult or "dangerous" questions?

The two main views on what academic freedom is or should be can be described as either “traditional” or “contemporary” and “socially-engaged”

As we look into these two views please think about the following questions:

  • Which view do you find more persuasive?
  • Does taking the traditional or contemporary view make it easier or more difficult to ask “dangerous” questions?

“Traditional” academic freedom

As we saw in the history article (step 1.5), the “traditional” view of academic freedom goes back to the 19th and early 20th Century. The German “Humboltian” university is often cited as an example. One feature of this tradition is that academics play an active part in governing their own institutions. Typically this tradition focuses on freedoms of academic inquiry and instruction within the university space. Academic freedom in the classroom or laboratory should have special protection. The same goes for academic research, publication and expression that targets an academic audience.

Other forms of expression or conduct by members of the higher education community is treated as “not academic”. As a consequence it is not protected by academic freedom. It is still protected as a human right. Drawing the line between human rights and academic values is an important question that we will come back to very soon in the course.

The traditional view attempts to distinguish “academic” from “not academic” according to 4 features:

  • the context of the expression: Academic journal articles (academic) versus public blogs, opinion essays, or columns in newspapers (non-academic);

  • the format of the expression: data-heavy analysis (academic) versus written commentary (non-academic);

  • the target audience: within the higher education sector (academic) versus a wider public (non-academic);

  • the location: on campus (in the classroom) or off campus.

According to the traditional view a political scientist exercises academic freedom when publishing in an academic journal. But not when publishing in a newspaper or general circulation magazine.

Clearly defining the limits of academic freedom intends to make them easier to defend. The rest of this course will invite you to question whether traditional boundaries are appropriate. Are they in fact easier to defend against those trying to limit academic inquiry or expression?

Contemporary challenges for the “traditional” view

Those that have a contemporary or socially engaged view of academic freedoms challenge the traditional view on three points:

Oversimplification: First, they claim that the traditional view risks oversimplifying academic inquiry and expression. They claim that you can’t avoid treating subjects that concern a wide public in disciplines like law, journalism, business, public and international affairs, medicine and public health, social work, and the like.

Is it really possible to distinguish “safe” or “legitimate” areas of enquiry from “sensitive” or “trouble making” areas?

Take the physical or biological sciences, often considered safe. But they are also likely to raise sensitive or troublesome issues. For example: * physics* and weapons systems (like weapons of mass destruction) * environmental science* and climate change issues * biology* and issues related to infectious diseases, pandemics and the like.

These are just as controversial as issues we encounter in political science – for example controversial governance issues – or sociology – for example civil society’s role in society, the status of the family, or religious conflicts.

False security: Second, the contemporary view claims that the traditional view provides false security. The security is based on an implicit trade-off: True scholarship is more worthy of academic freedom protection than other forms of expression. Excluding non- traditional forms of inquiry and expression from the protection of academic freedom helps avoid attacks on academic freedom. Unfortunately, history has many examples that show that accepting limits on academic inquiry or expression undermines both academic freedom and security. Especially when limits are imposed from outside the higher education community.

Social responsibility: Finally, the traditional view of academic freedom is said not to take social responsibility seriously. Social responsibility is the duty to seek and impart truth in order to respond to contemporary problems and the needs of all members of society. The state and public respect academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The academic community in turn uses these freedoms in a way that benefits society.

The examples we just mentioned involve complex problems like weapons of mass destruction, climate change, pandemics, ethnic and religious conflict, authoritarianism, mass human rights violations, and the like. On these issues, the contemporary view would be that academics have a responsibility to do more than merely publish findings for a public of academics. Rather, they have a responsibility to communicate and translate expert findings in ways that inform public understanding and debate.

Contemporary or “socially-engaged” academic freedom

A broader view of “socially-engaged” academic freedom embraces social responsibility and resists placing arbitrary limits on areas of academic inquiry and expression.

Viewing something as “academic” or “not academic” considers whether the inquiry or expression is undertaken according to the ethical and professional standards of the subject discipline. Encouraging a “socially engaged” understanding of academic freedom and objecting to line-drawing between the “academic” and the “nonacademic” areas does not mean that academic freedom protects all conduct or expression. Violent or coercive conduct – destruction of property, arson, or threats to harm or kill others – is not protected by academic freedom or human rights principles. Of course, the principles of due process and fair and humane treatment still apply, as will be discussed later in this course.

Similarly, academic freedom does not protect most forms of partisan, ideological, dogmatic, or similar “closed” forms of expression when these do not show a willingness to examine new information and evidence and to engage in open discussion and debate. Again, it should be underlined that these forms are still protected by human rights principles.

Even the contemporary view of academic freedom sees a need to draw lines around the scope of academic freedom in some cases. The lines are drawn between closed forms of expression and conduct on the one hand. On the other hand, those that are open to the possibility of persuasion and modification of views, that are a hallmark of higher education communities. Under this view, for example, academic inquiry into politics or religion is protected by academic freedom, but partisan campaigning or proselytizing is not.)


Those that support the traditional view tend to focus on context, format, location or target audience when deciding if expression or conduct is protected by academic freedom. Supporters of the socially-engaged view tend focus on whether the conduct or expression is undertaken according to professional standards, wherever it takes place, as determined by higher education professionals of similar expertise. Which view is closest to your view? Why? Let us know in the comments section.

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Dangerous Questions: Why Academic Freedom Matters

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