Free to Explore Ideas: A Conversation with Professor James Hartley

Jul 28, 2023 | Interviews

Free to Explore Ideas: A Conversation with Professor James Hartley

Conducted and edited by Howard Muncy

James Hartley is Professor of Economics at Mount Holyoke College, where he teaches Macroeconomic Theory, Money and Banking, and Principles of Economics among other economics courses. His areas of expertise include Macroeconomics, Business Cycles, Money and Banking, and the Great Books of Western Civilization. Professor Hartley has served as the Interim Executive Director of Mount Holyoke’s Professional and Graduate Education division, the Director of First Year Seminars, and is a past recipient of the Mount Holyoke College faculty Award for Teaching. He is also a member of the Academic Freedom Alliance. In this recent interview Hartley discusses his thoughts on the AFA and provides his perspective on academic freedom from the vantagepoint of a professor teaching at a small liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts. 

Howard Muncy: Why did you choose to join the Academic Freedom Alliance and what are your thoughts on the organization’s activity so far?

 James Hartley: I joined the AFA because I believe that the threat to academic freedom is the most pressing problem in the modern academy and if this threat is not stopped, there could be irreparable damage to the idea of a free society. One of the earliest crises in Western Civilization is an academic freedom story. Socrates was condemned by the Athenian jury because people did not like his attack on the unthoughtful pieties of the age. The petty tyrants of tomorrow’s Athenian jury are being taught in the colleges of today. If students and the rest of society do not learn the benefit of a free exchange of ideas, the future is bleak.

I have been extremely pleased with the work AFA has done to date. It has been uncompromising in addressing violations of academic freedom wherever they are occurring. Over time, such an effort could help shape the discussion in the academy. But, an even greater benefit is the way that AFA can serve as a resource for individual scholars who might be afraid of losing their jobs for advancing ideas. Knowing there is an organization that will back them up in a crisis may be just what is needed to help a faculty member overcome this fear.

HM: This interview series has featured scholars across numerous disciplines and institutions. The subjects have ranged from medicine and law to math and history. Most of our prior participants hold positions at large universities. As a professor at Mount Holyoke College, which has an undergrad enrollment under 2,500, perhaps we can begin with your views on why academic freedom is important to the smaller liberal arts institutions and identify what you consider to be some of its biggest threats in those locations.

JH: Oftentimes the arguments for academic freedom focus on scholars advancing knowledge through their research efforts. But, academic freedom is also a crucial part of an undergraduate liberal arts education. There has been a noticeable shift in recent decades to thinking that the purpose of college is to gain practical marketable skills. But the traditional value of a liberal arts education is that it is not practical, that it is training the complete person, not just the future employee. To get a liberal arts education, it is vital that the students and the faculty are perfectly free to explore ideas wherever they lead. A lack of academic freedom has a chilling effect on the classroom, and thus cripples the intellectual development of college students. Without academic freedom, faculty become afraid to advance controversial opinions and students internalize the faculty’s hesitancy.

This problem of silencing unpopular opinions is greater at smaller educational institutions. In a school this size, community norms can become monolithic. I have talked with many students over the years who expressed an unpopular opinion and suddenly became friendless. Many faculty fear the same sort of ostracism and thus decide to remain quiet. It is even more important at small institutions than at large ones to have an administration which is extremely vocal about the importance of academic freedom and is visibly willing to match its words with actions. Sadly, far too many college administrators prefer to handle controversy by encouraging a professor or student to refrain from expressing unpopular views in order to preserve the harmony of the community.

HM: You frequently publish articles at a variety of outlets. Many of your writings deal with important economic matters, but you also explore other big questions through the topics of literature, art, and culture. Finding controversy seems to be getting easier these days, even with subjects that were completely uncontroversial only years ago. My question is this, how important is the protection of extramural speech, as part of a broader defense of academic freedom, for academics who want to write and publish as you do?

JH: The idea of academic specialization is relatively new. Before the start of the 20th century, it was common for scholars to write about matters beyond the narrow fields in which they had expertise. One of the advantages of working at a small liberal arts college is that there is not the expectation of staying in your narrow research lane. Ideas are not bound by the modern divisions in the academy; there is much to be learned when experts in one area of knowledge explore other areas. For academic freedom to have any meaning, a scholar must have the freedom to roam widely on the intellectual terrain. If academic freedom only applies to narrow bands of research and others are allowed to determine what constitutes that narrow band, then there really is no academic freedom.

It is true that not all speech is covered by academic freedom. A scholar cannot make death threats and then plead that academic freedom means they should not be fired for doing so. But, we need to be very careful to keep small the realm of speech uncovered by academic freedom. This is particularly vital in the classroom. There is a strong temptation in colleges to claim that academic freedom does not include the right to say things which upset students. This temptation must be fiercely opposed if academic freedom is to have any meaning.

HM: What do you hope the AFA can accomplish in the future, near- and long-term?

JH: My biggest hope for AFA is that it will help recover the idea of college as a marketplace of ideas. The threats to academic freedom these days come from both the Left and the Right. People tend to notice violations of academic freedom only when they come from the other side of the political spectrum. It is most definitely true that people with whom you disagree are actively subverting the idea of academic freedom. It is more important, however, for you to notice the threats coming from your own side. After all, you are more likely to be able to stop the attacks from people with whom you broadly agree about other things.

I see a real danger right now that colleges are going to devolve into picking a side in the culture war and abandoning any notion that academic freedom is valuable. Someone needs to stand up and assert the benefits of the free exploration of ideas. Somebody needs to fiercely defend academic freedom regardless of the origin of the attacks on it. That is what AFA can do.

HM: Anything else you would like to add about academic freedom?

JH: Religious colleges present a special set of problems when it comes to academic freedom. It is not clear to me that there has been enough discussion about this in those circles. If a college has an explicit religious mandate, it can be reasonable to expect faculty and students to sign a statement of faith. This could mean a curtailment of academic freedom. If a scholar is working at an institution which requires signing a statement of faith that asserts the divinity of Christ, for example, then the institution has the right to expect that the scholar will not engage in research or teaching which undermines that statement of faith.

The problem arises when academic freedom is curtailed on matters outside the bounds of the statement of faith. Taking a real example, can a scholar working at a Christian college teach critical race theory? Imagine that nothing in the statement of faith is in any way related to the theory. Can the college simply assert that it has the ability to expand the statement of faith to include the prohibition of teaching any unpopular opinions? If so, the college has the moral obligation to write down the more encompassing statement of faith that includes things beyond traditional creedal beliefs.

Thinking through the matter of academic freedom in religious schools also has an important implication for secular schools like Mount Holyoke. Many secular schools are acting as if there is an unwritten Statement of Faith governing what faculty and students are allowed to say in public. This problem sometimes even morphs, for example with land acknowledgments, into compelled speech. If secular colleges are doing this, then they too have the same ethical obligation to explicitly and clearly acknowledge their rejection of academic freedom.

    Learn More About the Academic Freedom Alliance

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