Believe it or not, it is possible to make a conservative case for academic freedom without mixing opposites. In fact, one of the conservative movement’s sages, Russell Kirk, made the case quite eloquently more than half a century ago.
“The principal importance of academic freedom is the opportunity it affords for the highest development of private reason and imagination, the improvement of mind and heart by the apprehension of Truth, whether or not that development is of any immediate use to [society],” Kirk wrote. This put him somewhat at odds with one of the movement’s other great “thought leaders” William F. Buckley, Jr., who wrote, “I believe it to be an indisputable fact that most colleges and universities, and certainly Yale, the protests and pretensions of their educators and theorists notwithstanding, do not practice, cannot practice, and cannot even believe what they say about education and academic freedom.”
Yet and still, as Luke Sheahan of the National Humanities Institute (NHI) makes clear, Kirk was describing an ideal to strive for while Buckley was excoriating the abuses committed by academe, using academic freedom as an excuse.
Nevertheless, as Sheehan shows, Kirk’s idea of academic freedom was one practiced under a metaphoric “big tent.” “[B]oth the conservative bent and the liberal bent should not only be tolerated, but encouraged,” Kirk wrote. “If there were no liberals, we should find it necessary to invent some; if there were no conservatives—but perish that thought.”