What does Confucius say about intellectual freedom?

Academic Freedom, Education

By: Jessica Garner

Where are the borders where intellectual freedom ends? Are there borders at all?

These questions keep me awake some nights. I know, for instance, a preponderance of demonstrably false information gathers momentum online faster than fact. If there were an easy way to eliminate online propaganda, fake news, trolling, and other forms of intellectual chicanery while not treading on the intellectual freedom or free speech of others, wouldn’t such a solution already be in effect?

(Don’t answer that. It’s rhetorical and will only make your head hurt.)

No easy solution exists precisely because defining the borders between intellectual freedom and intellectual dishonesty is so hard. To continue a line of thought begun in this space by Andrea Jamison, where does intent factor in to drawing “the line?” What about faith? In the South, we say “you can’t fix stupid,” but intellectual freedom includes the freedom to go down many paths, right?

The answer, in a perfect world, is to regard each challenge to intellectual freedom on its own merits.

An interesting case study has been playing out on some university campuses over the past several years. In 2014, the University of Chicago severed its relationship with the Confucius Institute on campus. Professors petitioned the school to end the relationship between the university and the Chinese-funded Institute, citing a lack of institutional control over curriculum and staffing and “said that terminating the relationship would be ‘consistent with the intellectual principles and values of the university,’” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The Journal went on to cite anther report where a top Confucius Institute official told organizers at a European Association for Chinese Studies conference “that abstracts by some professors for papers and panels were ‘contrary to Chinese regulations’ and ordered the materials removed.”

Defenders of the Institutes have claimed they are vehicles for cultural exchange and language education. Detractors call the Institutes a projection of “soft power” by China. It’s not every day the American Association of University Professors and the National Association of Scholars line up on the same side of an issue as Senator Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Senator Ted Cruz (Tex.), but Rubio sent a letter in February to four Florida colleges and universities asking them to end relationships with their Confucius Institutes. The two educators’ associations had previously recommended severing ties unless the universities where the Institutes reside took control of academic operations and “[afforded] Confucius Institute teachers the same academic freedom rights … that it affords all other faculty in the university,” according to Inside Higher Ed. The University of West Florida agreed to suspend the relationship.

The National Association of Scholars cited “no smoking guns” in offering its recommendation to close the Institutes. So how does this compare to the sort of pushback a library might give to the idea removing a controversial Chinese book? Well, over 100 Confucius Institutes opened on college campuses across the U.S., and most remain open for now. Is the “line” intellectual freedom, money, politics, or something else?

Librarians might look at how deliberately the outcome of the Confucius Institute controversy is playing out as a road map for disputes about intellectual freedom. Experts and stakeholders are weighing in and trying to create a critical mass for change, yet the change—for now—remains slow.

The questions about how and where to draw lines in the battles of intellectual freedom will continue to keep me awake. As the story of Confucius Institutes plays out, it may well inform how I think about the question for some time to come.


Jessica GarnerJessica Garner is the Access Services Department Head at Georgia Southern University and has worked in Public and Academic libraries for over ten years. She has been involved with Children’s Services, Collection Development, Cataloging and Interlibrary Loan first as a Public Librarian at Live Oak Public Libraries and then at Georgia Southern University. Her scholarship interests include Interlibrary loan, intellectual freedom, and patron services. Find her on Twitter @jessCgarner.

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