You might think that I, as an academic, support the idea of academic freedom. In fact I do not. I also do not like the idea of tenure – particularly if such an institution was not something that has been individually bargained for. For the sake of my readers, I walked away from a tenure track appointment (and I am pretty confident I would have been able to obtain it) and now am on a contract basis where I am regularly reviewed by peers and bosses and can be retained or relieved of my duties just like any other employee.
That said, here’s a thought. Academic freedom generally means (in my interpretation) to research any topic you feel like working on, saying whatever you like about it, and then being able to teach your required courses in any way that you deem appropriate. Now, one might find it odd that an employer in a competitive marketplace would ever acquiesce to these things cart blanche. But rather than address whether they are important or even necessary, let us examine very briefly an analogy.
If academics have a positive right to teach in whatever way they wish, that makes it pretty hard (impossible) for schools to reprimand or fire professors who are teaching things contrary to what the school wishes them to teach, and even if for teaching things that their students and paying parents find reprehensible. Thus, you can have a socialist teaching economics in the name of proposing a fair and balanced and socially conscious view of the world – even though the economics of socialism dooms it to failure on informational grounds, on incentive grounds, and on top of that, empirical grounds.
Consider extending this kind of freedom to professionals in other occupations. Electricians should have “electronic freedom.” Such freedom would permit the electrician to wire a home and install sockets and outlets in whatever way he liked – particularly if he is feeling oppressed by the norms of having only 4 outlets per room, or 220 amp breaker boxes. In fact, unhappy customers, whose houses burn down or don’t work at all, would still be required to hire said electricians in the name of fairness and freedom. So electricians would have a rights to the job and to do it their own way. Of course, in the professions there ought to be room for creativity – but the competitive process would and should be able to weed out the good creations from the bad. Never mind that we don’t need guarantees of “electrical freedom” to preserve those notional freedoms. Why? Electricians are not forced to take positions at any particular firm. Furthermore, electricians (at least is some formerly free countries) could be free to start their own businesses and advertise these freedoms to potential customers as a reason to choose them over other more well known competitors.
That it sounds ludicrous to advocate a life of electrical freedom for electricians does not make the case of the academic any less ludicrous. In fact, I believe it makes it worse. That for some reason the academic community has managed to dupe the public into thinking that there is something special about them that does not also apply to everyone else in every other profession is a sad commentary on how “we” allow the “elites” to dictate popular thought. Well, I am one academic who is not riding on that bus.