Will the Internet Destroy Academic Freedom?

The cherished principle of academic freedom may be Googled to death, according a new article in the journal called—appropriately—the Journal of Academic Freedom. Philo A. Hutcheson, associate professor of educational-policy studies at Georgia State University, writes that academics used to be seen as society’s experts, but the Internet makes everybody think they are experts because knowledge is at their fingertips. And if society no longer believes professors have special expertise, it may no longer grant them the ability to pursue controversial ideas that grow from it.

“As the breadth and volume of search engines’ results increase, providing a source of certainty for those building an argument,” he writes, “… the validity of academics’ knowledge, the fundamental assumption of academic freedom, becomes problematic.”

Mr. Hutcheson, who testified on behalf of Ward Churchill in the former University of Colorado professor’s academic freedom and unfair-dismissal lawsuit, put it this way in an interview: “Academic freedom is a privilege, not a fundamental right. It only exists as a result of professors’ ability to lay claim to a special place in determining knowledge.” That specialness, he says, exists because academic information is carefully checked and footnoted. When he typed “academic freedom” into Google, on the other hand, it gave him about 11,500,000 results in 0.8 seconds, none of them verified for accuracy. (Although, he does note the second link was the American Association of University Professors, freedom’s guardian.) And that is the kind of bulk result that led a student in an online class that he just finished teaching to cite a discredited theory of human aggression.

“I can see, in the age of the smartphone, that a professor’s claim to academic freedom is no stronger than the claim of the person tapping at that phone as he walks down the street,” he says.

Now, not everyone in a university believes the Internet-driven spread of knowledge is a dangerous thing. In fact, many rely on it, in crowdsourcing projects in the humanities and the sciences. But the notion that professors’ abilities to do their jobs depends, essentially, on society viewing them as smarter than everyone else is novel, and likely to be more than a little controversial.

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