freedom, coercion, & authority (1999)

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Robert N. Bellah


  • Freedom, Coercion, & AuthorityAuthor(s): Robert N. BellahSource: Academe, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 1999), pp. 16-21Published by: American Association of University ProfessorsStable URL: 05/10/2010 14:30

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  • Freedom, Coercion,

    By By Robert Robert N. N. Bellah Bellah By By Robert Robert N. N. Bellah Bellah By By Robert Robert N. N. Bellah Bellah By By Robert Robert N. N. Bellah Bellah

    16 ACADEME January-February 1999

  • Authority DISCUSSIONS OF

    higher education today at- tempt to balance "freedom and responsibility." Such a concern is not unexpected in

    these rapidly changing times. Freedom is the highest American value, something before which every academic administrator and every faculty member regularly genuflects. We all want "freedom from outside interference," and we often reaffirm the traditional understanding of "academic freedom." But we live in society and cannot exist outside it. We therefore pair our central totem of freedom with another moral term, responsibility. The autonomy we desire must be balanced by something we give in return, by responsibility toward our students, our communities, the public that finances our work, and the nation and world of which we are citizens.

    I think the pairing of freedom and responsi- bility is a fruitful one, and that we can learn much from reflecting on it. But in this article I want to discuss a term much more troubling than responsibility, to argue that freedom must be balanced not only by responsibility, but also by authority.

    I will take a leaf from some recent work of the political theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain, who in turn extrapolates from Hannah Arendt, in questioning the tendency of liberal social phi- losophy to think that social life can be satisfac- torily conceived of as a conflict between free- dom and coercion. By "liberal" I do not mean what is called liberal in current American poli- tics, but the classical liberalism that lies at the root of American politics from right to left. This liberalism, in the form of neo-laissez-faire or neocapitalist ideology, is today more evident among so-called conservatives than among so- called liberals.

    Missing in the polarity between freedom and coercion is the concept of authority, which lib- erals tend to equate with coercion, but which an older tradition of political philosophy saw as the condition of freedom, not its antithesis. Indeed, following Arendt and Elshtain, one could argue that when authority disappears, freedom col- lapses into coercion. The standard logic of free- dom and coercion today equates the "market" with freedom, whereas government, and indeed all the nonmarket features of social life, includ- ing, for example, tenure, are equated with coer- cion. This way of thinking is peculiarly Ameri-

    Robert Bellah is Elliott Professor of Sociology, emeritus, at the University of California, Berkeley, and coauthor of Habits of the Heart (University of California Press, 1985) andThc Good Society (Vintage Books, 1992).

    I I

    ACADEME January-February 1999 vj

  • can, and deeply rooted in an Anglo-American tradition of social thought, but is now increasingly shared by the rest of the world. It is particularly attractive to former communist societies that have suffered an intense form of state coercion.

    Coercion of the Market IT IS NOT ONLY THE STATE, HOWEVER, THAT CAN COERCE, but the market as well. When the market is not moderated by re- sponsible government and other nonmarket mechanisms through- out society, then the market can become very coercive indeed, even totalitarian. That, I think, is what is happening to our society gen- erally, especially higher education. Are there today, in an anti- authoritarian age, any forms of authority that might help prevent market freedom from catapulting us into an "iron cage" of total co- ercion? Authority, as I use the term, refers to a normative order, even to what has been called a "higher law," which provides con- ceptions of a good society and a good person, and sets limits on what kind of behavior is acceptable. In this conception, authority can be, and in certain circumstances ought to be, challenged - and it must respond to such challenges with good reasons. But as in sci-

    studies programs from which I benefited - to Cold War needs. During these long Cold War decades, universities, especially the great research universities, grew dependent on federal funding not only for particular programs but also for overhead support.

    These developments worried many in the academy. During the Vietnam War, the tie between universities and the government gave rise to much criticism and some student violence. I remember vividly that twice during the late sixties, the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies at Berkeley was bombed. The Center for Japanese Studies, of which I was chair, was on the floor above the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, so these attacks came close to home, though the bombings were at night when the offices were empty. The students had an exaggerated view of the ac- tivities of the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies, where, they claimed, the Vietnam War was "being planned," but they were not entirely wrong in seeing that enterprise, like many others, in- cluding my own center, as serving partly as information-gathering institutions for the more effective pursuit of Cold War aims.

    Just how deeply Cold War collaboration corrupted universities was brought home by the publication in 1997 of Rebecca Lowen's book about Stanford, Creating the Cold War University. If Lowen

    I worry that in stressing the responsibility of the teacher we forget the student. It is the teacher, not the student, who knows what the student ne why is the student there at all? ence, where everything cannot be doubted at once, an effective nor- mative order and the authority derived from it must be taken for

    granted much of the time. The equation of authority with coercion, and its general delegitimation, I would argue, opens the door to

    tyranny. I contrast authority rather than responsibility with freedom

    here because responsibility is, in more than one sense, a source of our problem, even a reason why we have lost the capacity to speak with authority. The double-edged nature of responsibility became

    apparent in the relationship between higher education and the state during World War II. In a period of general mobilization, especially during a war most people believe is morally just, like World War II, it is natural for the university to accept responsi- bility for helping out. Not only natural scientists but also social scientists were mobilized to assist the war effort, and many cam-

    puses devoted themselves to training military officers and special- ists. Even though universities abdicated much independence to assist in the war effort, administrators and professors felt little un- ease. The cause was obviously just, and the mobilization, it was as- sumed, was temporary. In previous wars, most notably World War I, universities had collaborated with the war effort and then

    quickly returned to "normal" after the war was over.

    Cold War University BUT THE AFTERMATH OF WORLD WAR II WAS DIFFERENT. IT was followed not by "normalcy" but by the Cold War. During the Cold War, especially its early decades, universities had an unusually close association with the government compared with their history before World War II. Universities tailored many programs -

    particularly in the natural and social sciences but also in the area

    is right, the Stanford administration ruthlessly tailored academic decisions to Cold War needs, considering such fields as classics and natural history irrelevant because they did not contribute ide- ologically or financially to the Cold War university that Stanford had become. At Berkeley we never treated classics the way Stan- ford did, but the University of California nonetheless undertook one of the greatest of all Cold War academic responsibilities, namely the running of nuclear laboratories, including Los Alamos, where the atomic bombs were designed and produced. Many faculty members, myself included, have fought for years against support of these labs, but the relationship remains in place, though the mission of the labs today, it is declared, is only to guarantee the functional effectiveness of existing bombs.

    While the evaluation of the Cold War in retrospect must cer- tainly be complex (not everything we did


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