Liberalism and Liberal Education

October 23, 2023
By Khoa Sands ‘26

The rights of free expression enshrined in the First Amendment are often considered the most foundational freedoms in American society. However, while free expression in the public sphere is constitutionally guaranteed, free expression within private universities is not similarly protected. Academic freedom cannot be properly understood as a mere extension of the First Amendment. Rather, academic freedom is justified by the unique mission of the university: the pursuit of truth.

Free expression within the academy is therefore fundamentally different from free expression in the public sphere. However, the modern academy is not the cloistered institution of centuries past. Rather, modern universities are increasingly integrated into their communities. The truth-seeking mission of the academy cannot be isolated from society at large. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, to examine the relationship between these two rights – free expression within and without the academy – more fully and present a defense of why academic freedom matters to all Americans.

We are accustomed to thinking of free expression as a realization of the basic rights of the people and the fundamental feature of a free and open society. Yet true free speech has an unsettled status within democratic society. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that there was “no country where there prevails, in general, less independence of mind and less true freedom than the United States of America.” He was, of course, referring to the tyranny of the majority, a more effective and powerful intolerance than all the horrors of the Old World. Tocqueville noted that even the Spanish Inquisition was unable to completely suppress “books contrary to the religion of the majority” but in America, “even the thought” of publication of unpopular works was suppressed by democratic culture. This lack of true free expression in America is due to the lack of free thought caused by the mass culture of democracy. “Literary genius” did not yet exist in America, according to Tocqueville, since genius cannot exist without “freedom of the mind, and there is no freedom of the mind in America.”

Tocqueville’s great insight was that despite political protections for free expression, free expression did not and could not exist within a democratic society. Even John Stuart Mill wrote that the “tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby.” The mass culture of democracy breeds groupthink and intolerance. This is the paradox of free speech in a democracy – tolerance breeds intolerance, and collective groupthink masquerades as free speech.

How, then, is true free speech possible within a democratic society?  In Tocqueville’s words, “freedom of the mind” is the necessary precondition for free expression; free thought must precede free speech. The question now becomes how can one think freely? This, of course, is the program of liberal education.

To think freely, an individual must be liberated from the groupthink of mass culture. Mill understood that a healthy democratic society relied upon a populace possessing spiritedness and “strong impulses” – these being “the most passionate love of virtue, and the sternest self-control.” These classical virtues are necessary to preserve democratic society. According to Mill, “It is through the cultivation of these [virtues] that society both does its duty and protects its interests.” Free speech is both an ends and a means; it is the vindication of the rights of the people, a means to truth, and “the practical part of the political education of a free people.” One is not born a free and virtuous person who can uphold and defend an open society, but rather, must be made into one.

The uneducated mind is not free; he who cannot think freely cannot speak freely. Liberal education creates and preserves liberalism, and liberalism is dependent upon liberal education; free expression in the public sphere is created and upheld by academic freedom. Free speech in the academy is not, therefore, an issue concerning only the cloistered existence of academics, but the foundation of all societal free expression and liberalism itself. It is incumbent upon all Americans and those who would defend a free society to protect academic freedom.

Khoa Sands ‘26, a PFS Writing Fellow, is a General Officer of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society and a Vice President of the Princeton Human Values Forum.