Conformity versus Freedom at the State University

November, 2016

Lincoln -- Whenever I have a chance, I try publicly to commend the administrative leadership of the University of Nebraska. There are many occasions when I grit my teeth and am tempted to do otherwise. But President Hank Bounds' recent re-affirmation of freedom of speech and thought at NU deserves conspicuous praise.

The last time I posted favorably was to commend then Vice Chancellor Ronnie Green for stepping up with a scientific climate change study that bailed out the State Legislature from embarrassment over a study it had authorized to study climate change exclusive of anthropogenesis. Legitimate studies must have research first, conclusions following, not the other way around.

President Bounds was recently emailed by a member of the Board of Regents who wanted the university to discipline, in one way or another, a student who expressed his opinion by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem. Whereupon President Bounds dusted off the Board's own position on such matters and quickly concluded such action against the student would not only be wrong but a violation of what the university stands for. His statement is worth reading, if not framing. (Faculty, especially, take special note of this: "College campuses, as much as any space, must be places where robust, even uncomfortable, debate is welcomed and encouraged." Remember this when someone in your department is marching to his or her own diffent drummer.)

The late historian Henry Steele Commanger made his own powerful statement on the matter of students' freedom of opinion, discussing it in the context -- borrowed from German higher education -- of Lehr- and Lernfreiheit, in "The University and Freedom: 'Lehrfreiheit' and 'Lehrnfreiheit'[sic]," The Journal of Higher Education, Vol. 34, No.7 (Oct., 1963):

"What we call academic freedom really consists of two traditions: lehrfreiheit [freedom to teach] and lehrnfreiheit [freedom to learn].... The second was originally the more important of the two. It was designed to provide independence for students. It meant freedom to learn..., to live one's own life. We in America have largely lost sight of academic freedom for the student, and it is high time that it be restored to our academic pattern..., if our universities are not to be merely advanced preparatory schools.

"The reason for this is practical, not sentimental. Almost all the pressures on the young in our society are for...conformity.

"One of the functions of the university here is to provide some counterbalance to this conformity so natural to the young. Probably nowhere else in the world do young persons talk so much about their liberty and do so little about it when they have it in the United States. They do not know how to act when they are given independence because they have not been trained to use it. Even our colleges and universities provide little effective training in freedom. Well may we ask when our young people are supposed to learn how to be independent, how to think for themselves, how to manage their own affairs, if they don't learn it in this crucial period of their lives. How are they going to grow up intellectually if they are not allowed to do so in their college years?"

But what about the exercise of such freedom when representing the university on an athletic team? Should not the student be required to conform to the norms of others, or those prescribed by the university? I would answer the question by asking what better way to represent the university than by showing that freedom prevails over conformity at the institution.

Personally, I stand for the national anthem, although at times I am tempted to remain seated when the occasion is used for self-promotion by incredibly bad performers, or when it is exploited for ideological purposes. I like my national anthem straight, not twisted. If the situation calls for it, I might want to take a knee, or at least reserve the freedom to do so.

Like President Bounds, I am a military veteran (and I am writing this on Veterans' Day). I served in many a risky situation and survived. I did not serve -- Regents please note -- so that my country or my state would enforce conformity over freedom.