On the Nature of the Scholar/Lecture 6

On the Nature of the Scholar by Johann Gottlieb Fichte
Lecture VI.. On Academical Freedom

The point which we had attained at the close of last lecture in our portraiture of the Student to whom his own person had become holy through the view of his vocation as a Divine Thought was the consideration of his outward manners. With this subject is connected an idea, frequently broached but seldom duly weighed,—the idea of the Academical Freedom of the Student. Much, indeed, of what has been said regarding this subject lies below the dignity of these lectures; and only in the sequel will we be able to find a way of elevating it to our own standard. Hence I not only cheerfully admit that the discussion of this idea, which I hope to accomplish to-day, is a mere episode in my general plan; I must even entreat you so to consider it. But to pass over altogether a subject to which one is led, almost unconsciously, in a review of the moral behaviour of the Student, I hold to be only less permissible because it is commonly avoided; and quite properly avoided, since it may so easily degenerate into polemics or satire from both of which we are secured by the tone of these lectures.

What is Academic freedom? The answer to this question is our task for to-day. As every object may be looked upon from a double point of view,—partly historical, partly philosophical,—so may the subject of our present inquiry. Let us in the first place survey it from the historical point of view, i.e. let us try to discover what they meant by it who first allowed and introduced Academic Freedom.

Academies have always been considered as higher schools, in contrast with the lower preparatory schools, or schools properly so called;—hence the student at the academy as distinguished from the pupil at the school. The freedom of the former could thus only be understood to be emancipation from some constraint to which the latter was subject. The pupil, for example, was compelled to appear at his class in a particular kind of clothing, which in those days indicated the dignity of the future Scholar; he dared not neglect his fixed hours of study; and he had many other duties imposed upon him, which were then regarded as a sort of sacred service preparatory to the future spiritual office to which the Student was usually destined, as for instance, choir-singing. In all these respects he was subject to strict and constant inspection;—the transgressor was often ignominiously punished; and indeed the teacher himself was both overseer and judge. Meanwhile Universities arose; and the outward, unlearned world would naturally be inclined to place them under regulations similar to those adopted in the only educational institutions with which it was familiar,—i.e. such as it saw in the schools. But this did not ensue,—and it was impossible that it should ensue. The founders of the first Universities were Scholars of distinguished talent and energy; they had fought their way through the surrounding darkness of their age to whatever insight they possessed; they were wholly devoted to their scientific pursuits and lived in them alone; they were encompassed by a brilliant reputation; in the circles of the great they were esteemed, honoured, consulted as oracles. They could never condescend to assume the position of overseers and pedagogues towards their hearers. Hence it was that, to a great extent, they held in contempt the teachers of the lower schools, from whose level they had raised themselves by their own ability; and for that reason they would neither practise, nor allow themselves to be distinguished by, those things which characterized the former. Their call assembled around them hundreds and thousands from all countries of Europe; the number of their hearers increased both their importance and their wealth; and it was not to be expected that they should expose to annoyance those who brought such benefits to them. Besides, how was it possible that young men, with whom they had but a passing acquaintance among hundreds of their fellows,—who in a few months, a year, or at most a few years, would return to distant homes,—should interest them closely, or engage their affections? Neither the moral demeanour nor the scientific progress of their hearers was of any consequence to them; and in these days a well-known Latin adage which speaks of "taking gold and sending home" very naturally arose. Academic Freedom had arisen, as emancipation from the constraints of school, and from all supervision on the part of the teacher over the morality, industry, or scientific progress of the Student, who was to him a hearer and nothing more.

This is one side of the picture. It may easily be imagined, and, where no very high standard of morality existed, it might very naturally occur, that these founders of the early universities did so think of this matter, and that a portion of this mode of thought has come down to us through past centuries. Let us now look at the other side.

What, then, would be the natural and reasonable effect of this idea of Academical Freedom on the minds of the Students? Could they have thought themselves highly honoured by this indifference on the part of their teacher to their moral dignity and scientific improvement?—could they have demanded this indifference as a sacred right? I cannot believe it,—for such indifference amounts to disregard and contempt of the Student, and it is surely most offensive to tell him to his face by such conduct "It is nothing to me what becomes of you."—Or would it have been natural for them to conclude from the carelessness of others about their moral demeanour and regular application to study that therefore they themselves were entitled to neglect these things if they chose?—would they have acted reasonably had they regarded their Academic Freedom as only a right to be immoral and indolent? I cannot believe it. Much more reasonable would it have been, had they determined, because of this want of foreign superintendence, to exercise a stricter surveillance over themselves; if out of this freedom from outward constraint had arisen a clearer perception of their duty to urge themselves onward so much the more powerfully, to watch over themselves so much the more incessantly, and to look upon their Academic Freedom as liberty to do all that is right and becoming by their own free determination.

In short, the Academic Freedom of the Student, taken historically, according to its actual introduction into the world, exhibits in its origin, in its progress, and in what of it still exists, an unjust and indecent contempt for the whole Student-Class; and the Student who considers himself honoured by this Freedom, and lays claim to it as a right, has fallen into a most extraordinary delusion;—he is certainly ill informed, and has never seriously reflected on the subject. It may indeed become the well-disposed man of riper years, who is always a lover of life and youth, to turn aside from the awkwardness, the rudeness, and the many errors into which unbridled energy is apt to fall, good-naturedly to laugh at these, and to think that wisdom will come with years; but the youth who feels himself honoured by this judgment, and even demands it as his due, cannot be supposed to possess a very delicate sense of honour.

Let us now consider this subject—the Academic Freedom of the Student in its philosophical sense; i.e. as it ought to be; as, under certain conditions, it may be; and, what follows from that, how the actually existing Academic Freedom will be accepted by the Student who understands and honours his vocation. We shall open a way to the attainment of insight into this matter through the following principles:—

1. The external freedom of the Citizen is limited, in every direction and on all possible sides, by Law; and the more perfect the Law the greater is the limitation,—and so it ought to be:—this is the proper office of Law. Hence, there is no sphere remaining in which the inward freedom and morality of the Citizen can be outwardly exhibited and demonstrated,—and there ought to be no such sphere. All that is to be done is commanded, under penalties; all that is not to be done is forbidden, likewise under penalties. Every inward temptation to neglect what is commanded, or to do what is forbidden, is counterbalanced in the conscience of the Citizen by the certainty that should he give way to the temptation he must in consequence suffer such and such an amount of evil. Let it not be said,—"There is no existing legislation so all-comprehensive, nor is the sagacity and vigilance of any tribunal so infallible, that every offence is sure to meet its punishment." I know this; but as I said before, it ought to be thus, and this is what we should regularly and constantly approximate to. Legislation cannot calculate on the morality of men; for its object the freedom and security of all within their respective spheres cannot be left to depend on anything so uncertain. For the just man there is indeed no law under any possible legislation; he will commit no evil even although it were not forbidden, and whatsoever is good and right, that he will do without reference to the command of authority; he is never tempted to crime, and therefore the idea of its attendant punishment never enters his mind. He is conscious of his virtue, and in this consciousness he has his reward within himself. But externally there is no distinction between him and the unjust man who is withheld from the commission of wrong and impelled to the performance of duty only by the threatenings of the law:—the former cannot do anything more or leave undone anything more than the latter, but only does or leaves undone the same things from a different motive which is not outwardly apparent.

2. Under this legislation, the Scholar and the unlearned person stand, and ought to stand, on common ground,—as Citizens. Both can raise themselves above the law in the same way,—by integrity of purpose; but this is not calculated upon in either of them, and in neither can this integrity become apparent in the sphere of external legislation. And since the Scholar is further a member of a certain class in the State, and practises in it a certain calling, he lies also under the compulsory obligations belonging to that class and calling;—and here once more it cannot be apparent whether he fulfils his duties in this sphere from integrity of purpose or from fear of punishment; nor does it in any way concern the community by what motive he is actuated so that his duties are fulfilled. Lastly, in those regions which have either not yet been reached by an imperfect legislation, or which cannot be reached at all by an external legislation, he is still accompanied by the fear of disgrace; and here again it cannot be seen whether he does his duty in consequence of this fear or from inward integrity of purpose.

3. But, besides these, there are yet other relations of the Scholar, with which external legislation cannot interfere, and in which it cannot watch over the fulfilment of his duty, where the Scholar must be a law to himself and hold himself to its fulfilment. In the Divine Idea he carries in himself the form of the future Age which one day must clothe itself with reality; and he must show an example and lay down a law to coming generations, for which he will seek in vain either in present or in past times. In every age that Idea clothes itself in a new form, and seeks to shape the surrounding world in its image; and thus do continually arise new relations of the world to the Idea, and a new mode of opposition of the former to the latter. It is the business of the Scholar so to interpose in this strife as to reconcile the activity with the purity of his Idea, its influence with its dignity. His Idea must not lie concealed within him; it must go forth and lay hold upon the world, and he is urged to this activity by the deepest impulses of his nature. But the world is incapable of receiving this Idea in its purity; on the contrary, it strives to drag down the Idea to the level of its own vulgar thought. Could he forego aught of this purity, his task would be an easy one; but he is filled with reverence for the Idea, and he can give up no part of its perfection. Hence he has before him the difficult task of reconciling these conditions. No law,—but why do I speak of laws?—no example of the fore- world or of his own time can reveal to him the means of this reconciliation,—for so surely as the Idea has assumed a new form in him has his case never before occurred. Even reflection, of itself, cannot give him the required point of union; for although, by reflection, the Idea itself in all its purity is revealed as the first point of the union, yet much more is needed before the second point the mental condition of the surrounding world, and what may safely be expected from it—can be clearly and fully comprehended in the same thought. Well may those who have wrought most mightily upon their age have closed their career with the inward confession that their reliance on the spirit of their time had proved fallacious, that they never supposed it to be so perverse and imbecile as they had found it, and that while they accurately estimated one of its aberrations and avoided it, another, hitherto unperceived, revealed itself. To succeed at all at any time, there is needed, in addition to reflection, a certain tact, which can only be acquired by early exercise and habit.

Farther, it is clear that in this matter—in doing everything possible to reconcile the opposition between the inward purity of the Idea and its external activity—the Scholar can be guided only by his own determination, can have no other judge but himself, and no motive external to himself. In this no stranger can judge him—in this no stranger can even wholly understand him, nor divine the deep purpose of his actions. In this region, so far is respect for the judgment of others from aiding his intention, that on the contrary he must here cast aside foreign opinion altogether, and look upon it as if it were not. He must be guided and upheld by his own purpose alone;—and truly he needs a mighty and immovable purpose to keep his ground against the temptations which arise even from his noblest inclinations. What is more noble than the impulse to action, to sway the minds of men, and to compel their thoughts to the Holy and Divine?—and yet this impulse may become a temptation to represent the Holy in a common and familiar garb for the sake of popularity, and so to desecrate it. What is more noble than the deepest reverence for the Holy, and disdain and abnegation of everything vulgar and opposed to it?—and yet this very reverence might tempt some one to reject his age altogether, to cast it from him and avoid intercourse with it. A mighty and good will is needed to resist the first of these temptations, and the mightiest of all to overcome the second.

It is evident from these considerations, that, for his peculiar vocation, the Scholar needs shrewd practical wisdom, a profound morality, strict watchfulness over himself, and a fine delicacy of feeling. It follows, that at an early age he ought to be placed in a position where it is possible and necessary for him to acquire this practical wisdom and delicacy of feeling, and that this cultivation of mind and character should be a peculiar element in the education of the future Scholar. Every Citizen, without exception, may cultivate these qualities, and must have it in his power to do so; legislation must leave this possibility open to him,—it is compelled to do so by its very nature. But it does not concern the legislature or the commonwealth whether the Citizen does or does not elevate himself to this vocation, because his calling will still remain within the range of external jurisdiction. But as for the Scholar, it is of importance to the Commonwealth, and to the whole Human Race, that he should both raise himself to the purest morality and acquire sound practical wisdom, since he is destined one day to enter a sphere where he absolutely leaves behind him all external judgment. The legislation for him, therefore, should not merely allow him the possibility of moral cultivation like every other Citizen, but, so far as in it lies, it should place him under the outward necessity of acquiring this cultivation.

And how can it do this? Evidently only by leaving him to his own judgment as to what is becoming, seemly, and appropriate, and to his own superintendence of himself. Is he to create for himself an independent sense of what is proper and becoming? How can he do so if the law accompanies him everywhere, and everywhere declares what he is to do and what not to do? Let the law prohibit those whom she can retain under her yoke from indulgence in everything which she wishes them to renounce; but, as for him who must one day leave her jurisdiction, let her trust him betimes as a noble and free man. The man of refined morality does not wait until the law discovers a thing to be unseemly and directs its prohibition against it,—it would be ignominy for him to need such direction;—he anticipates the decree, and relinquishes that in which the vulgar around him indulge without scruple, simply because it is unbecoming his higher nature. Give the Student room to place himself in this class of noble and free men by his own effort alone. Is he to unfold in himself a profound and powerful morality, a tender delicacy of sentiment, a deep sense of honour? How can he do this surrounded by threats of punishment? Let the law rather speak to him thus:—"So far as I am concerned, thou mayest leave the path of right and follow after evil; no other harm shall overtake thee but to be despised and scorned,—despised even by thyself when thou turnest thine eye inwards. If thou wilt venture on this peril, venture on it without fear." Is the Human Race one day to confide to him its most important interests, and in his dealings with those interests is he to have confidence in himself? How can men trust him when they have never proved him? how can he trust himself when he has never proved his own strength? He who has not yet been faithful in small things cannot be entrusted with great things; and he who has not been able to stand a trial before' himself cannot without the basest dishonour accept an important trust. On these grounds we rest the claims of Academic Freedom, of an extensive yet well-considered Academic Freedom.

In a Perfect State, the outward constitution of Universities would, in my opinion, be the following: In the first place, the Students would be separated from other classes of the community pursuing other vocations, so that these classes might not be harassed or injured by the possible abuse of Academic Freedom, tempted to similar license or misled into hatred of the law while living under its rule by daily contact with a class free from its restraints. The Students at these Universities would enjoy a high degree of freedom; instructions on Morality and Duty, and impressive pictures of a True Life, would indeed be laid before them; they would be surrounded by good examples, and their teachers would not only be profound Scholars, but the elite of the best men in the nation; of compulsory laws, however, there would be very few. Let them freely choose either good or evil: the time of study is but the time of trial; the time for the decision of their fate comes afterwards; and our arrangement would have this advantage, that unworthiness, where it existed, would be clearly recognised as such, and could no longer be concealed.

The present actual constitution of Universities is indeed by no means of this kind. It is doubtful whether Academic Freedom was ever looked upon from the point of view from which we have described it, particularly whether it was ever so looked upon by those who gave the Universities their constitution. Academic Freedom has actually arisen in the way described in a former part of this lecture, i.e. from disrespect towards the Student-class: and we may leave it undetermined by what influence the remnants of this system are now maintained; for even were it admitted that the same disrespect for the class, which still exists although in a less degree, and perhaps want of opportunity to get rid of these relics of another age, were its only supports, yet this is of no moment to the true-minded Student, who judges of things not by their outward form but by their inward spirit. Whatever others may think of Academic Freedom, he, for his part, takes it in its true sense: as a means by which he may learn to direct himself when outward precept leaves him, watch over himself when no one else watches over him, urge himself forward where there is no longer any outward impulse, and thus train and strengthen himself for his future high vocation.