Academic Freedom and Human Rights

By Bowen, Roger W. | Academe, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

Academic Freedom and Human Rights


Bowen, Roger W., Academe


I am old-fashioned. Since my college days, I have relied on William Strunk and E. B. White's The Elements of Style as the authority in addressing stylistic questions. That book dictates: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each tenu except the last." Thus Strunk and White command "red, white, and blue." Up-to-date academics (and the New York Times), on the other hand, would use a comma only after red, as if to say that white and blue are specially conjoined, apart from red; they sometimes tell you, "It's all relative." Something similar to this battle has been fought long and hard by scholars in the area of human rights. The cultural relativists hesitate to criticize governments that condone or commit human rights abuses, while universalists (critics maintain "absolutist" is the better term) like myself invoke a human rights standard and give no ground.

The basis for my "Strunk and White" standard for academic freedom is Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

The Universal Declaration has defined humankind's noblest aspirations during the post-World War II period; it comes close to representing universal agreement on fundamental human rights. It is a moral statement and in that respect resembles the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which has become the standard for the American academy.

Relativists might argue that Article 19 and the 1940 Statement are arbitrary enactments, and therefore not binding. Of course, those who take such a position might also be, in their respective spheres, violators of human rights or academic freedom, in the name of "order" in the first instance and "administrative efficiency" in the second. We must not trust them, nor accept such facile contentions.

It is one thing to strive to be "value free" in the scholarship we produce, but quite another to be valueless in the face of attacks on universal standards. There is nothing wrong with taking an absolutist or universalist stand when a basic freedom is under assault.

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