FORTY YEARS ago, the Nationalist government of South Africa introduced a measure which it jokingly called the "Universities Extension Act". The joke was that the Act closed the white universities to Black, Indian and Coloured students, and made it impossible for white universities to recruit anything but white faculty. It's not only wicked regimes that take pleasure in mislabelling what they're up to; the Department for Education and Employment calls the new A-levels "more accessible," when what is meant is "easier".
Almost annually since, there has been an "Academic Freedom Lecture". Two weeks ago, I gave the thirty-seventh, in the company of Professor Martin Legassick; he should have given his lecture 20 years ago, but couldn't. He was teaching in Ghana, and the government would not allow him back into South Africa - his home country - to give it. The university was told that any attempt to publish the lecture would be met by the suppression of the lecture and by financial sanctions against the university. It was an interesting, and not quite comfortable experience to read this forbidden text 20 years after the non-event. At the least, it was a reminder of why liberals need enemies on the left.
Martin Legassick's lecture was called "Academic Freedom and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat", and its message will be familiar to the ageing readers of Lenin, Barrington Moore, and Herbert Marcuse. My theme in contrast was drawn from Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill. It was a variation on an old but easily forgotten story: academic freedom can be stifled by democracies as well as tyrannies; freedom can fall victim to good nature as well as to simple nastiness; and universities will conspire against themselves. What makes universities special, and their freedom worth preserving, is that they shelter the dispassionate search for useless truths, or at least for the not immediately and obviously useful, truth. They certainly do other things, too, and quite rightly so, but the other things don't make them special. It is their commitment to the search for truth that justifies their existence as nothing else can. And that is just what is threatened by conformity, and an over- emphasis on usefulness. Post-apartheid South Africa closely resembles present-day Britain in its obsession with vocationally useful education; and the danger of that obsession is that we forget what separates a university from a training college - the attempt to liberate the intellect and the critical faculties of both the faculty and the students. …