The autonomy of the student in higher education: An interdisciplinary examination of academic freedom in Catholic universities

John Anthony Vigilanti, Fordham University


Since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, a problem has surfaced concerning the scope, purpose, and nature of Catholic institutions of higher learning, especially in the United States. Also, the notion of academic freedom in Catholic institutions of higher learning has been the subject of renewed interest as the church has sought to exercise greater control not only over those permitted to teach Catholic theology but also over the scope of opinions that might be offered as exceptions to church doctrine, even when they are the result of substantive scholarship or conscientiously held beliefs. This dissertation is an interdisciplinary study which attempts to elicit from both the medieval paradigm of the university of Bologna and the nineteenth century German notion of Lernfreiheit (learning freedom) an understanding of students which argues for the need of an open, honest, teaching-learning dynamic, permitting the presentation of a wide range of views, even in sectarian institutions of higher learning committed to specific doctrinal agendas. The interdisciplinary methods of this study are historical, philosophical, psychological, and theological. The study draws upon the most recent research in adult development, learning, and education as well as the most recent statistical and demographic information concerning the undergraduate population of our institutions of higher learning. The study concludes that non-traditional adult students (over 21 years of age), who now form the majority of undergraduates, are more inclined to collaborative, dialogical, mutually respectful educational encounters which call upon their experience and input and invite their analysis. Since recent church documents acknowledge and support the presence of inquiring, mature adults, the participation of these adults in Catholic institutions of higher learning requires an openness and freedom on the part of both professor and student whereby intellectual probing, critical thinking, and theological speculation are seen as rightful and necessary. Organizationally and administratively the philosophy of Catholic higher education requires further clarity in order to distinguish between institutions of higher learning whose mission is in keeping with the traditional concept of the university, and institutions of higher education dedicated to train those in official ministry and pastoral service.

Subject Area

Religious education|Educational theory|School administration

Recommended Citation

Vigilanti, John Anthony, "The autonomy of the student in higher education: An interdisciplinary examination of academic freedom in Catholic universities" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9123128.