Why Freedom of Inquiry in Academia Matters to an Autodidact

11 November 2016


The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

The University of Toronto more than a hundred years ago in 1910.

When I attempt to look back on my personal history in a spirit of dispassionate scientific inquiry, I find that I readily abandon entire regions of my past in my perhaps unseemly hurry to develop the next idea that I have, and which I am excited to see where it leads me. Moreover, contemplating one’s personal history can be a painful and discomfiting experience, so that, in addition to the headlong rush into the future, there is the desire to dissociate oneself from past mistakes, even when these past mistakes were provisional positions, known at the time to be provisional, but which were nevertheless necessary steps in order to begin (as well as to continue) the journey of self-discovery, which is at the same time a journey of discovering the world and of one’s place in the world.

In my limited attempts to grasp my personal history as an essential constituent of my present identity, among all the abandoned positions of my past I find that I understood two important truths about myself early in life (i.e., in my teenage years), even if I did not formulate them explicitly, but only acted intuitively upon things that I immediately understood in my heart-of-hearts. One of these things is that I have never been, am not now, and never will be either of the left or of the right. The other thing is, despite having been told many times that I should have pursued higher education, and despite the fact that most individuals who have the interests that I have are in academia, that I am not cut out for academia, whether temperamentally, psychologically, or socially — notwithstanding the fact that, of necessity, I have had to engage in alienated labor in order to support myself, whereas if I had pursued in a career in academia, I might have earned a living by dint of my intellectual efforts.

The autodidact is a man with few if any friends (I could tell you a few stories about this, but I will desist at present). The non-partisan, much less the anti-partisan, is a man with even fewer friends. Adults (unlike childhood friends) tend to segregate along sectional lines, as in agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization we once segregated ourselves even more rigorously along sectarian lines. If you do not declare yourself, you will find yourself outside every ideologically defined circle of friends. And I am not claiming to be in the middle; I am not claiming to strike a compromise between left and right; I am not claiming that I have transcended left and right; I am not claiming that I am a moderate. I claim only that I belong to no doctrinaire ideology.

It has been my experience that, even if you explicitly and carefully preface your remarks with a disavowal of any political party or established ideological position, if you give voice to a view that one side takes to be representative of the other side, they will immediately take your disavowal of ideology to be a mere ruse, and perhaps a tactic in order to gain a hearing for an unacknowledged ideology. The partisans will say, with a knowing smugness, that anyone who claims not to be partisan is really a partisan on the other side — and both sides, left and right alike, will say this. One then finds oneself in overlapping fields of fire. This experience has only served to strengthen my non-political view of the world; I have not reacted against my isolation by seeking to fall into the arms of one side or the other.

This non-political perspective — which I am well aware would be characterized as ideological by others — that eschews any party membership or doctrinaire ideology, now coincides with my sense of great retrospective relief that I did not attempt an academic career path. I have watched with horrified fascination as academia has eviscerated itself in recent years. I have thanked my lucky stars, but most of all I have thanked my younger self for having understood that academia was not for me and for not having taken this path. If I had taken this path, I would be myself subject to the politicization of the academy that in some schools means compulsory political education, increasingly rigid policing of language, and an institution more and more making itself over into the antithesis of the ideal pursuit of knowledge and truth.

But the university is a central institution of western civilization; it is the intellectual infrastructure of western civilization. I can affirm this even as an autodidact who has never matriculated in the university system. I have come to understand, especially in recent years, how it is the western way to grasp the world by way of an analytical frame of mind. The most alien, the most foreign, the most inscrutable otherness can be objectively and dispassionately approached by the methods of scientific inquiry that originated in western civilization. This character of western thought is far older than the scientific revolution, and almost certainly has its origins in the distinctive contribution of the ancient Greeks. As soon as medieval European civilization began to stabilize, the institution of the university emerged as a distinctive form of social organization that continues to this day. Since I value western civilization and its scientific tradition, I must also value the universities that have been the custodians of this tradition. It could even be said that the autodidact is parasitic upon the universities that he spurns: I read the books of academics; I benefit from the scientific research carried on at universities; my life and my thought would not have been possible except for the work that goes on in universities.

It is often said of the Abrahamic religions that they all pray to the same God. So too all who devote their lives to the pursuit of truth pay their respects to the same ancestors: academicians and their institutions look back to Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum, just as do I. We have the same intellectual ancestors, read the same books, and look to the same ideals, even if we approach those ideals differently. In the same way that I am a part of Christian civilization without being a Christian, in an expansive sense I am a part of the intellectual tradition of western civilization represented by its universities, even though I am not of the university system.

As an autodidact, I could easily abandon the western world, move to any place in the world where I was able to support myself, and immerse myself in another tradition, but western civilization means something to me, and that includes the universities of which I have never been a part, just as much as it includes the political institutions of which I have never been a part. I want to know that these sectors of society are functioning in a manner that is consistent with the ideals and aspirations of western civilization, even if I am not part of these institutions.

There are as many autodidacticisms as there are autodidacts; the undertaking is an essentially individual and indeed solitary one, even an individualistic one, hence also essentially an isolated undertaking. Up until recently, in the isolation of my middle age, I had questioned my avoidance of academia. Now I no longer question this decision of my younger self, but am, rather, grateful that this is something I understood early in my life. But that does not exempt me from an interest in the fate of academia.

All of this is preface to a conflict that is unfolding in Canada that may call the fate of the academy into question. Elements at the The University of Toronto have found themselves in conflict with a professor at the school, Jordan B. Peterson. Prior to this conflict I was not familiar with Peterson’s work, but I have been watching his lectures available on Youtube, and I have become an unabashed admirer of Professor Peterson. He has transcended the disciplinary silos of the contemporary university and brings together an integrated approach to the western intellectual tradition.

Both Professor Peterson and his most vociferous critics are products of the contemporary university. The best that the university system can produce now finds itself in open conflict with the worst that the university system can produce. Moreover, the institutional university — by which I mean those who control the institutions and who make its policy decisions — has chosen to side with the worst rather than with the best. Professor Peterson noted in a recent update of his situation that the University of Toronto could have chosen to defend his free speech rights, and could have taken this battle to the Canadian supreme court if necessary, but instead the university chose to back those who would silence him. Thus even if the University of Toronto relents in its attempts to reign in the freedom of expression of its staff, it has already revealed what side it is on.

There are others fighting the good fight from within the institutions that have, in effect, abandoned them and have turned against them. For example, Heterodox Academy seeks to raise awareness of the lack of the diversity of viewpoints in contemporary academia. Ranged against those defending the tradition of western scholarship are those who have set themselves up as revolutionaries engaged in the long march through the institutions, and every department that takes a particular pride in training activists rather than scholars, placing indoctrination before education and inquiry.

If freedom of inquiry is driven out of the universities, it will not survive in the rest of western society. When Justinian closed the philosophical schools of Athens in 529 AD (cf. Emperor Justinian’s Closure of the School of Athens) the western intellectual tradition was already on life support, and Justinian merely pulled the plug. It was almost a thousand years before the scientific spirit revived in western civilization. I would not want to see this happen again. And, make no mistake, it can happen again. Every effort to shout down, intimidate, and marginalize scholarship that is deemed to be dangerous, politically unacceptable, or offensive to some interest group, is a step in this direction.

To employ a contemporary idiom, I have no skin in the game when it comes to universities. It may be, then, that it is presumptuous for me to say anything. Mostly I have kept my silence, because it is not my fight. I am not of academia. I do not enjoy its benefits and opportunities, and I am not subject to its disruptions and disappointments. But I must be explicit in calling out the threat to freedom of inquiry. Mine is but a lone voice in the wilderness. I possess no wealth, fame, or influence that I can exercise on behalf of freedom of inquiry within academia. Nevertheless, I add my powerless voice to those who have already spoken out against the attempt to silence Professor Peterson.

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6 Responses to “Why Freedom of Inquiry in Academia Matters to an Autodidact”

  1. Xcalibur said

    I’m college educated. As another autodidact, one of my biggest hurdles in school was adapting myself to someone else’s intellectual structure and demands. It was an adjustment process, as I wrote papers and took exams that were organized and graded in a certain way. While modern education is more flexible than the eight-legged essay of Imperial China, it’s still a challenge to adapt oneself to an institution.

    Yes, the political leanings of Academia are apparent. The current role of Academia reminds me of the Church in medieval Europe – an institution designed to propagate certain beliefs, and chastise and drown out dissenting views (I’m aware there was more to the Church than this, and Scholasticism was quite productive, but I’m drawing a limited analogy). In addition to this, higher education is being industrialized. There are exploitative business models built around the degree – a minor example is overpriced college textbooks, a major example is the student loan industry. There is a sense of jumping through hoops and paying money to get a degree as a means of entering the career world. There is nothing wrong with practical training, but it is becoming pervasive. Not to mention the de facto social chains placed on an individual as they go into debt for a degree and struggle to pay it back.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I admire your ability to make that transition, as I do not think I would be willing to adapt myself to someone else’s intellectual structure or demands. In fact, I know that I would not be willing to make that compromise unless I received some kind of special treatment or consideration (which would not be forthcoming). The whole deal of jumping through hoops — paying the money, attending the classes, turning in the work — strikes me as distasteful. It may be appropriate for young people only just having left home and in need of structure and discipline, but it just seems absurd when they are marketing degrees to professionals who want to improve their qualifications. Or, rather than absurd, maybe I should say that the exchange of cash for credentials is truly vulgar.

      Best wishes,


      • Xcalibur said

        What made it easier was being able to switch between “school mode”, where I’d carry out intellectual orders, and my normal “autodidact mode” while reading in libraries or online. I was able to temporarily shift away from autodidactism, not abandon it.

        The university should be a bastion of inquiry, thought, experiment, and knowledge – that is first and foremost. From there, this can be applied in various useful ways. My concern is that social/political/economic agendas are overriding the original mission that germinated in the medieval era.

      • geopolicraticus said

        One question to consider is whether the university system, with its contemporary politicization (and which in a previous comment you aptly compared to the medieval Catholic church), will gradually be transformed into another kind of institution, one that is no longer first and foremost concerned with freedom of inquiry, truth, and knowledge, but, more like the Confucianism of imperial China, an institution that is mostly concerned to mold and to train a class of governmental professionals (mandarins) who would go on to take their places of leadership in government, business, and industry. To a certain extent, this is already de facto the case (though not exhaustively so). We could posit an extrapolation of this development wherein universities converged upon this model, while research and development in science and technology at the same time gradually shifted to the private sector.

        It is my hope, as stated in the above post, that the university system of the western world can embody the ideals of the university as found in such seminal works as Ortega y Gasset’s The Mission of the University and Alfred North Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, inter alia, but, at the present moment, this is not the trend.

        Best wishes,


  2. Erik Landahl said

    From Professor Peterson:

    ” I can tell you one thing that I’m very terrified of, and you can think about this. I think that the continual careless pushing of people by left wing radicals is dangerously waking up the right wing. So you can consider this a prophecy from me if you want. Inside the collective is a beast and the beast uses its fists. If you wake up the beast then violence emerges. I’m afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up the beast.”

    On November 8, the beast awoke in the U.S.A.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Also relevant here is the rise of the alt-right, not so much as a political force, but as the intellectual vanguard of a re-invigorated right wing. At a time when the traditional right wing intelligentsia is on the ropes, the alt-right is working on new ideas far outside the mainstream, and their willingness to discuss matters that cannot even be mentioned in polite society is making this discussion quite interesting. (On the left, “So much has become unsayable, as if by not speaking of our grosser aspects we abolish them.”) For my own part, I try to stay abreast of alt-right ideas, but there isn’t a single intellectual on the left that I currently follow as closely, simply because no one on the left is saying anything interesting right now.

      I agree with professor Peterson that the left, in pushing too far and too fast, is provoking a right wing reaction, but the successful elements of that reaction will not be predictable right wing policies, but ultimately a new right wing that rises out of the alt-right, which is proving itself vibrant at a time when the left is intellectually moribund. As I have written in this post that I am neither of the left or the right, I consider the social successes of either of these movements to be unfortunate and counter-productive, so in making this claim I am not saying that “my” side is going to win.

      Best wishes,


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