Writing within the intense theological disputes amongst the various Christian confessions that emerged in the wake of Luther's break with the Roman Church some 150 years earlier, John Milton had spectacular literary chutzpah. Milton imagined God mounting a defense of the central concept of human freedom and the responsibility that comes with it, presenting it in an exchange between God and the Son in his 1674 epic, Paradise Lost: "I formed them free, and free they must remain, / Till they enthrall themselves . . . the high Decree / Unchangeable, Eternal . . . ordained / Their freedom, they themselves ordained their fall." (3.124–128). Even without knowing all the finer nuances of Arminian or Calvinist thought with which Milton was struggling, one can sense the high-wire act Milton has undertaken. The notorious complexity of this celestial dialogue—and for some, its failure to make a compelling case—reflect the profound dilemma that sits at the heart of a Christian theology that posits simultaneously an omniscient, omnipotent God, on the one hand, and the justice of holding humanity responsible for its own choices and actions, on the other. It is also my starting point for this reflection on freedom because of how it seems to construe the concept largely in negative terms. Freedom is the default position for all humanity. Yet Milton (or Milton's God, at least) does not seem interested in exploring the affirmative potentialities of that freedom—what such freedom might allow humanity to achieve or create—so much as he is concerned with how that freedom makes falling and failure possible. Man had been created "sufficient to have stood, though free to fall" (3.99), Milton's God insists several lines earlier. In other words, they've been given enough rope to hang themselves.
So much of our current discussion about freedom within the academy seems to me to be framed by this way of understanding freedom. We want to know how far we can push our freedoms before endangering ourselves, before offending or threatening or even circumscribing the freedom of others. We wring our hands at how freedom from constraints turns our students into irresponsible hedonists or insensitive monsters. We lament the outrageous, outlandish, politically troubling claims made by scholarly loose cannons. We worry that unrestrained freedom of expression means the end of "civility" (whatever that might be). We struggle with what seems to be an irresolvable conflict between safety (think "safe spaces" and "trigger warnings") and the freedom to say, to read—and to require our students to read—anything. In short, we seem to assume that freedom is the length of rope we give ourselves and others but that the only inevitable use to which that rope can be put is some sort of hanging. We are sufficiently free, but free only and inevitably to fall.
Given the associations and burdens this discourse of freedom carries with it, I want to suggest that it might be helpful for us to shift our terms, to move from a language of academic freedom to a language of academic liberty. We are, after all, participants in a scholarly framework that we often describe as the liberal arts. It's a term that owes its origins to classical antiquity and stands outside Christian assumptions about the inevitable fallenness of humanity. "Quare liberalia studia dicta sunt, vides; quia homine libero digna sunt," wrote Seneca, "Hence you see why 'liberal studies' are so called; it is because they are studies worthy of a freeborn person." This classical idea of liberty is embedded in a sense of civic participation. Liberty, and the liberal studies that are its precondition, are important because they enable the individual's capacity to engage in, and contribute to, the social and political world. They are not unavoidable threats to civility; rather, they are the very conditions of the cives.
It's an old idea and I am not insensitive to its problematic associations with a certain kind of privileged elitism; Seneca was, after all, citing the idea as a way of distinguishing the freeborn (male) Roman from slaves and other disenfranchised members of his society. But I would nevertheless propose that replacing freedom with liberty offers us a way of thinking beyond the impasse we seem to have reached in our invocation of freedom in the academic world. Academic liberty reminds us that the free range of inquiry and scholarly discourse is in the service of a shared project, collective, social, and political by definition. It is an affirmative, progressive stance, rather than a defensive, reactive one. And we do need to do more than react defensively to persistent attacks on the university, especially in the United States.
While some may see my argument as a tacitly Jewish challenge to an implicitly Christian idea (that is, the collective requirements of the kehillah superseding any abstract claims to individual freedom), it is striking that Modern Hebrew seems to have no exact equivalent for the term "liberal arts." The phrase mada'ei ha-ruah will sometimes serve in its place, itself a calque drawn from the German world of higher education and its idea of Geisteswissenschaften. But these are both terms that more narrowly refer to the humanities and, more importantly for my purposes, situate the area of study in the realm of ruah or Geist, spirit, precisely not the public and civic space of liberal inquiry for which I am advocating. In the shift from freedom to liberty I am suggesting that the humanities—and the arts, and the social sciences, and the physical and life sciences—are not only made possible by free academic inquiry but are what give meaning to the very liberty they depend upon. Academic liberty embeds itself in the varied, diverse, often conflicting lived experiences of those who participate in it and benefit from it. It does not eliminate the clashes of culture and values that arise on university campuses, but it does see those clashes as elemental to its mission rather than as restrictions to its application.
Jeffrey Shoulson is the Doris and Simon Konover Chair of Judaic Studies, professor of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, and professor of English at the University of Connecticut, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life. He is the author of Milton and the Rabbis: Hebraism, Hellenism, and Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2001) and Fictions of Conversion: Jews, Christians, and Cultures of Change in Early Modern England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013). His current project is a literary and cultural history of the English Bible from Tyndale the to King James version with a particular focus on the role of Jewish learning in English translations.