Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity: Confronting the Fear of Knowledge, by Joanna Williams, is very well done. She shows how important historically academic freedom has been to the pursuit of knowledge, and examines the baleful consequences of the contemporary assault on truth and objectivity. I sympathise with her, too. Much as I had to do for my book Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, Williams has had to sit down for hours, poring over poisonous stuff written by destructive narcissists and digesting it into something with which issue can be taken. She has done a great service to civilisation – as we wave goodbye to it.
There are a few things I would like to add to Williams’ excoriating critique of the intellectual conformism of the academy today, the first of which centres on the intimate connection between the first European universities and the Roman Catholic Church. As Williams explains, scholarship then was conceived as an act of devotion, in which knowledge of ‘The Word’ – ethics, spirituality and logic – was distinct from knowledge of ‘The World’ – mathematics and science. French sociologist Émile Durkheim, notes Williams, described the type of knowledge associated with ‘The Word’ as unobservable, invented, arbitrary and external to the perceptions of individuals. Durkheim called this knowledge ‘sacred’. ‘It had a collective structure and social basis’, writes Williams, ‘the origins of which could be traced back to shared religious beliefs which Durkheim considered the “paradigm of all advanced forms of theoretical knowledge”’.
Durkheim is making a profound point here. He is saying that the pursuit of knowledge is made easier if there is a shared membership, which is what religion provides. So Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica raises questions that could not be addressed in a university today, because there is a Safe Space provided by the faith. And, in a way, that is what too many students today are whining on about – they can cope with knowledge only if they are given membership first, and membership comes through closing your mind around items of dogma. But they have no dogma! All they have is the sense that some people have power and that they are not among them (a belief which is false in both parts).
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