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Freedom, Coercion, & Authority

Author(s): Robert N. Bellah

Source: Academe, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 1999), pp. 16-21
Published by: American Association of University Professors
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40251713
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January-February 1999


higher education today attempt 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
I think the pairing of freedom and responsibility 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 philosophy to think that social life can be satisfactorily conceived of as a conflict between freedom and coercion. By "liberal"I do not mean
what is called liberal in current American politics, 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 socalled liberals.
Missing in the polarity between freedom and
coercion is the concept of authority, which liberals 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 collapses into coercion. The standard logic of freedom and coercion today equates the "market"
with freedom, whereas government, and indeed
all the nonmarket features of social life, including, for example, tenure, are equated with coercion. This way of thinking is peculiarly Ameri-

RobertBellahis ElliottProfessor
and coauthorof
emeritus,at the Universityof California,Berkeley,
of Sociology,
Habitsof the Heart (Universityof CaliforniaPress,1985) andThc Good Society (VintageBooks,1992).


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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

but the market as well. When the market is not moderated by responsible government and other nonmarket mechanisms throughout society, then the market can become very coercive indeed, even
totalitarian.That, I think, is what is happening to our society generally, especially higher education. Are there today, in an antiauthoritarianage, any forms of authority that might help prevent
market freedom from catapulting us into an "iron cage"of total coercion? Authority, as I use the term, refers to a normative order,
even to what has been called a "higher law," which provides conceptions 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 circumstancesought to be, challenged- and
it must respond to such challengeswith good reasons. But as in sci-

I worry


is the



is the




responsibility of the








ence, where everythingcannot be doubted at once, an effective normative order and the authority derived from it must be taken for
grantedmuch of the time. The equation of authoritywith coercion,
and its general delegitimation, I would argue, opens the door to
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 responsibility for helping out. Not only natural scientists but also social
scientists were mobilized to assist the war effort, and many campuses devoted themselves to training military officers and specialists. Even though universities abdicated much independence to
assist in the war effort, administrators and professors felt little unease. The cause was obviously just, and the mobilization, it was assumed, 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

was followed
by "normalcy"but by the Cold War. During the
Cold War, especiallyits earlydecades, universitieshad an unusually
close associationwith the government compared with their history
before World War II. Universities tailored many programsparticularlyin the natural and social sciences but also in the area
18 ACADEME January-February1999

studies programs from which I benefited- to Cold War needs.

During these long Cold War decades, universities, especially the
great researchuniversities, grew dependent on federal funding not
only for particularprogramsbut also for overhead support.
These developments worried many in the academy. During the
Vietnam War, the tie between universitiesand 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 exaggeratedview of the activities 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, including 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, Creatingthe Cold War University.If Lowen

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 ideologically or financially to the Cold War university that Stanford
had become. At Berkeley we never treated classics the way Stanford 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 certainly be complex (not everything we did even in World War II is
above criticism- I think of the carpet bombing of Dresden and
Tokyo and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and
Nagasaki), the Soviet empire was a real threat, and our vigorous
response to it surely helped to end it. My point is not that academic mobilization for Cold War aims was in any simple sense
wrong, but that it had an unfortunate consequence. It led us to
defend our institution in terms of an outside contribution, a utility, a responsibility, if you will, to an extrinsic end. It muted our
capacity to pay attention to the purposes of higher education. We
lost the authority to speak of our own intrinsic values when we
spoke so incessantly of our contribution to external ends, however
good they might be. And since our engagement with government
during the Cold War years was also an engagement with industry,
so closely linked to government in many Cold War projects, it
was natural, perhaps, when the Cold War ended so abruptly and
unexpectedly, for us to continue to justify our work by its exter-


nal contributions, now not to government in its Cold War effort,

but to industry and the economic prosperity of our people.

Higher Education in the Economy

economic mobility from the beginning in America, and its expansion in the twentieth century, particularlyafter World War II, has
enabled millions of young people from working-classbackgrounds,
often the first in their families to go to college, to enter middle-class
occupations and better their standing in society. That is an achievement of which we can be justly proud. But to make the upward mobility of our students our primary mission is a serious distortion of
everythingwe stand for, or ought to stand for. It has further consequences in the ideological climate of the present day: it makes us
simply a sector in the market economy, the higher education "industry,"as it is frequentlycalled, and subject to all the stricturesthat
apply to any other part of the economy. This self-understandingis
tempting as mass production gives way to information supply as the
most essentialcomponent of our economy. Aren't we the ones who
will make our students at home in the information age by helping them become

respensibility of the
eds to learn;

"symbolic analysts,"
as former U.S. secretary of labor Robert
Reich calls the
members of the new
elite? What better way to justify ourselves in an era of tight resources (though we might ask ourselveswhy resourcesare tight in a
high-growth economy)? And after all, isn't there even a moral aspect to this self-justificationin that we contribute to freedom when
we contribute to a free economy and to producing graduateswho
can use their skills to live lives with a greaterabundance of choices?
What a lovely marriageof freedom and responsibility.
We have come of late in America to identify freedom with the
free market. Indeed, democracy is associated so closely with the
free market that if a society like mainland China has a free market
but not democracy, then experts are ready to assure us that "inevitably" it will gain political democracy too. But I want to challenge this assumption. What is freedom in the market is tyranny
in other spheres, such as the professions and politics. A decent society depends on the autonomy of the spheres. When money
takes over politics, only a facade of democracy is left. When
money takes over the professions, decisions are made on the basis
of the bottom line, not professional authority. This issue is becoming acute in medicine as the dominance of for-profit HMOs
grows. And in higher education as well, the bottom line is beginning to dominate decisions.
The tyranny of the bottom line drives academic decisions in
several ways. When the university is seen simply as part of the
economy, then the normal pressures for market efficiency set in,
and the consequences are nowhere more ominous than in the
sphere of personnel decisions. Contemporary industry wants to
control labor costs, and downsizing is a common mechanism for
doing so. In the academy, downsizing takes a subtle form. It is difficult to cut the number of instructors, since a certain number of
classes must be taught, and in public universities rising enrollment is creating pressure for more classes. Nonetheless, some col-

leges and universities have resorted to simple downsizing by cutting faculty, expanding the teaching load, and increasing class
size. Many more institutions, however, have reduced the percentage of faculty who are tenured or on the tenure track and increased the number of part-time and temporary instructors, at
considerable savings in salaries. During the recession years of the
early nineties, the University of California cut its tenured or
tenure-track faculty by about 10 percent- some say more- with
vague promises to restore the positions later. I have no firm statistics, but I have seen no indication that the cuts are being restored,
nor do I believe they ever will be. The institutional consequences
of increasing the proportion of part-time and temporary instructors were discussed at length in the January-February 1998 issue
of Academe, and I will not repeat what was written there, but the
consequences are all bad in terms of academic purposes other than
economic efficiency. The recommendation coming from a conference often academic associations published in that issue is that
the proportion of part-time and adjunct faculty should be decreased, not increased.
Another negative consequence of the tyranny of the bottom line
is the tendency to encourage, or at least not discourage, relationships between researchlaboratories,particularlyin the natural sciences, and business. Such relationships blur the line between nonprofit and profit-making concerns. Since criticisms of this trend
have been widespread in recent years, I will not discuss them here.
One feature of the dominance of the market I do want to examine is the idea of consumer sovereignty. It is an obvious consequence of seeing higher education as part of the market economy.
If we are simply supplying a market product, why shouldn't the
consumer be sovereign? Sometimes consumer sovereignty is
dressed up and spoken about in terms of responsibility to students, a concern for course evaluations and outcome assessments,
even "faculty productivity." While I am certainly not unsympathetic with concern for improved teaching, I worry that in stressing the responsibility of the teacher we forget the responsibility of
the student. It is the teacher, not the student, who knows what the
student needs to learn; otherwise, why is the student there at all?
But the model of an economic transaction starts from a fixed preference in the mind of the consumer, who simply shops for the
best way to fulfill that preference. In the teacher-student relationship, which is not intrinsically an economic one, there can be no
fixed preference in advance. I oppose the whole notion of outcome assessment, not only in the university but even in kindergarten, because it denies the essentially creative and unpredictable
nature of the learning experience. We are not mere transmittersof
predigested information, on which the student may be tested at
the end of the course. What we teach are ways of thinking, even
ways of feeling, and what the students learn often surprises us as
much as it does them, which is as it should be. If you want information, go to an encyclopedia or to the World Wide Web, not to
college. College is supposed to teach you what to do with information, how to think with and about it, and there are no algorithms for doing that.

Education for a Wider Purpose

ever ignore the very real utilitarian value of higher education for
students, or the fact that, as I have already implied, it has its own
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1999 19

legitimacy. But there is a way to combine the ideas of education for

careeradvancement and education for the development of character, citizenship, and culture. That is through the concept of calling,
vocation, and profession in the deepest sense of those words. Professionals- we are, after all, in the business of educating future
professionals- need not be hired guns, selling their expertise to the
highest bidder. We can help them understand that through their
profession they can contribute to the larger aims of society, that
professional ethics are not some last-minute add-on, but the very
core of the meaning of professionalism. It was never easy to make
this link, but it's more urgent than ever to do so now.

In today's America, where economic criteria dominate every

sphere, how can we resist the pressureto abandon every one of our
defining beliefs for the sake of economic efficiency? It may be difficult to do so, but we must. We must make a claim to legitimate
authority, to the authority to expect students to look things up
rather than be spoon-fed - and much more than that. We must
say that contributing to a vibrant economy, or even helping students get good jobs, is only one of our purposes, and probably not
the most important one. An effective democracy requires informed and thoughtful citizens. Traditionally, it was administrators who articulated one of the central purposes of the university:

is the
is our
so that
of society,
contribute to the self-understanding
of our


The task becomes difficult indeed when the university is

equated with a shopping mall, something that fundamentally undermines the teacher-student relationship. Students who come to
school with a consumer mentality have difficulty accepting, even
provisionally, institutional authority or the authority of their professors. They are, I would argue, coerced by their preexisting desires, and unable to take advantage of the freedom that openness
to the intrinsic values of the institution would make possible. I
was disturbed, but not surprised, when a few years ago I heard
that a student in the Stanford Business School had, after the first
few class meetings, shouted at an able young sociology instructor,
"I didn't pay $40,000 to listen to this bullshit," and then walked
out of the class. I have also heard of undergraduateswho, in arguing about a grade, said to their instructors, "I'm paying for this
course," as though they felt they weren't getting the value paid
for. I have not heard of anything quite so crude happening at
Berkeley, but I have had several angry students come up after a
lecture in which I had mentioned Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu,
and Rousseau, telling me that I had no right to mention so many
names they had never heard of. I'm afraid I told them that if they
hadn't heard of them, that was their problem, and they should
look them up. In short, I was not surprised by a story in the San
Francisco Chroniclelast January about UCLA's annual survey of
first-year college students that carried the headline, "College
Freshmen Called the Laziest in a Generation." But it's not just
laziness that leads undergraduates to think that they should not
have to look up unknown words or names that professors useit's the attitude that college is a consumer marketplace.
This consumer attitude that the university is a place to meet
preestablished needs tempts some to say that we need to emphasize learning rather than teaching. The teacher is simply a facilitator who helps the student find the information necessary for career enhancement; perhaps ultimately all the student will need is
a computer for "distance learning." I would argue, however, that
only through the genuine interaction of teacher and student can
the deepest kind of learning occur; conveying professional knowledge in a context of ethical responsibility requires such interaction. Only a teacher who can model that kind of knowledge in his
or her own life and teaching can really transmit it to students; that
can happen even in a large lecture course, but not, I believe,
through a computer screen.

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the education of citizens. In our complex world, in which citizens

are called on to understand and make decisions about many issues, this function is more important than ever. But few university presidents today, and not many professors, talk about it as enthusiastically as they speak of the critical contribution we make to
the economy.
Academic leaders- presidents, chancellors, and deans- can
make a significant contribution to public understanding of our
purpose and value, one that goes well beyond economics, and
they can do better in this regard than many of them have been
doing lately. But I believe that an articulate professorialdefense of
our mission is equally essential. Few professors, however, see
themselves as representativesof the academy as a whole, or even of
the institutions at which they teach. Most of them feel a primary
identification and loyalty to their discipline. But even in their disciplinary identity, professors can offer a broader definition of their
role than our utilitarian world is used to hearing.

The "Calling"of Our Disciplines

sociologists, Edward Shils, for example, spoke of the "calling of
sociology." This calling, he said, was not to provide society with
clever techniques for social manipulation - such as opinion
polling and focus groups but something altogether different.
"The real deficiency of technological sociology," he wrote, "which
would remain despite its scientific rigor, its moral naivete, and its
harmlessness (hitherto) is its failure to grasp that the true calling
of sociology is to contribute to the self-understanding of society
rather than to its manipulated improvement."1 This, at least to
me, seems a splendid definition of the calling of my profession.
What is our purpose, what are we here for, what is the good we
pursue? It is to contribute to the self-understanding of society, so
that both individually and collectively we can make sense of our
world, can orient our action, and can make better decisions in
many spheres- family, community, nation, and, to be sure, economy as well.
I think, and I suppose Shils would have agreed, that technical
work in sociology can contribute to increased social selfunderstanding. But I am also aware, as was Shils, that technical sophistication can become an end in itself, a form of disciplinarynar-

cissism,outweighinganylargerconceptionof ourcalling.I rememberwhen, a few yearsago, my departmentat Berkeleyreceivedan

outside review,as all Berkeleydepartmentsperiodicallydo. We
werechidedby the reviewcommitteefor inadequateformalization,
at Berkeley
such reviewshave no coercivepower.I suspectthat althoughwe
now havemore than a little technicalsophistication,a similarreviewcommitteewouldfindus deficientin theseregardsto thisday,
even thoughwe remainamong the top threedepartmentsin nationalratings.)But whatreallystruckme was the failureof the reviewcommitteereportto mentionthatsevenor eightmembersof
our department
H |_

J || IS IU



tant contributions
farbeyondthe discipline. Examplesinclude Todd Gitlin's
workon the mediaandthe VietnamWar,ArlieHochschild'swork
on two-earner
families,anda bookon Americanhabitsof the heart,
aremembersof ourdepartment.The reviewauthors
two of
Although the Berkeleydepartmenthas managedto weather
criticismfrom review committees, other institutions have not
been so fortunate;they havebeen compelledto focus on technical sophisticationover social self-understanding.Such a focus
can have seriousconsequences.At anothercampusof our university,I am told, the sociologydepartmentwas forbiddenbythe
deanto appointanyonewho had not publishedan articlein the
AmericanSociologicalReviewor the AmericanJournalof Sociology, the two most prestigiousreviewedjournals in our field.
Now it's not just that most articles,with some notable exceptions, in thesejournalsareboring;it's also that a surveyof members of the AmericanSociologicalAssociationa few years ago
found that a majorityadmitted that they couldn't understand
most articles published in the AmericanSociologicalReview.
That gave me pause. Neither of these journalsis a vehicle for
reachinga largerpublic or, apparently,even for reachingmost
sociologists.Given that hiring,promotion,and tenuredecisions
in sociology often depend largelyon a technicalexpertisethat
has little practicalapplication,why should anyonecarewhether
our disciplinelives or dies?


Pitfalls of Practicality
and that the survivalof the universityas we have known it dependson ourawarenessof thatdefinition.Technicalexpertisecan
receivea justificationof sortswhen it has a practicalpayoff.But I
can envisiona universityof the futurein which everyfield that
lackspracticalpayoffwill havebeenjettisoned.When I hearof socalled"liberalartscolleges,"most of whose undergraduate
arein businessadministration,lawenforcement,nursing,or communications,with philosophyand religiousstudies majorsfew
andfarbetween,I thinkthatwe arealreadymost of the waythere.
Some disciplineshavelong understoodthemselvesas contributors to social self-understanding.
History, for example,helps us
knowwherewe havecome fromand therefore,in part,wherewe

are,as membersof the humanspecies.The disciplinesthat study

literaturecan alsohelp us to hold up a mirrorto ourselvesand enlargeour humanity.And the naturalsciences,as partof a liberal
artscurriculum,leadto understandingof the cosmosof whichwe
area part,and thus enhanceour senseof who we are.
A relativelynew field, environmentalstudies,illustratesShils's
point in an areathat cuts acrossthe distinctionbetweenthe natural and the social sciences.A field that shows us what we are
doing to the environmentwould seem to be of greatimportance,
and many campuseshave been increasingresourcesin this area.
Not without problems,however.Businessand agriculturalinterests in Californiahave used theirlegislativeinfluenceto pressure
the Universityof Californiato decreaseits emphasison ecological
and environmentalstudies;these groupsview such studies as a
threatto the economicgrowthof ourstate.Suchactionsrevealthe
importanceof the traditionalidea of academicfreedomand the
tenure system that protects it. In this example,the academy's
of societycolobligationto contributeto the self-understanding
lides head-onwith the idea of the educationindustryas just one
morepartof the globaleconomy.
By now, most readerswill haveprobablyfiguredout my strategy. By quoting a leading sociologist about the importanceof
contributingto the self-understandingof society, I have ended
up defendingthe traditionalpurposeof a universityeducation,
the ideal of Bildung:to produce not technicians,but educated
human beings, persons of broad cultural sympathies,knowledgeable,ethical, and aestheticallysensitive.You may say that
that is an elite ideal, and so it is. In spite of our commitmentto
the democratizationof education,the universityremainsone of
the most stratifiedinstitutionsin America.And just as polarization increasesin everyother sphere,so perhapsonly a few elite
institutionswill be able to maintainthe traditionalconception
of highereducation.
I think of RollinsCollegein Florida,which some fifteenyears
ago abolishedthe undergraduatebusinessmajor and starteda
classicsmajor.The college has been thrivingever since, though
not exactlyas a role model for otherinstitutions.I alsoknow of a
recentreligiousstudiesgraduatewho taughta courseon religion
for the Universityof Phoenix,a frillto be surefor thatinstitution.
But the instructornonethelessfound her studentseagerand inquisitive,willingto workand to learn.And I havea friendwho recently taughta courseon Frenchliteratureat a communitycollege;she found the studentsin that utterlynonutilitariancourse
to be enthusiasticand able.Does our futurepromisea realeducation for the few and a little frostingon the utilitariancakefor the
many?I am afraidthat if we do not mount a betterdefenseof our
own intrinsicpurposesthanwe haveforquitea while,evena good
educationfor the few may not survivefor long. To be effective,
our defensemustspeakwith authorityaboutthe aimsandgoalsof
highereducation,aboutits intrinsicgoods, aboutthe kindsof institutionswe need, and about kind of graduateswe should produce. I am reasonablyconfident that finding the courageto do
that will enhanceour self-respectand strengthenour capacityto
fulfillour calling. <&

1. Edward Shils, The Calling of Sociology(Chicago: University of Chicago
Press, 1980), 76.

1999 21
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