Liberal Education

Intellectual Freedom for Intellectual Development

Intellectual development, the development of the intellect, is the emergence of increasingly sophisticated forms or levels of cognition, the progress of understanding, reasoning, and rationality. We can describe the outcomes of intellectual development by specifying steps, stages, or levels of development for cognition as a whole and/or for various cognitive domains. Fundamentally, however, intellectual development is an ongoing process of reflection, coordination, and social interaction that begins in early childhood and continues, at least in some cases, long into adulthood.

Liberal education, however defined, includes the promotion of intellectual development as a primary goal. There may be specific facts, skills, and values we want students to learn in specific courses and contexts, but above all we want to foster intellectual progress. To encourage intellectual progress, we must promote reflection, coordination, and social interaction, the basic processes of development. There are many ways to do this, but the fundamental context for all of them, I argue, is one that encourages students to consider, propose, and discuss a variety of ideas--that is, an environment of intellectual freedom. I conclude with a set of principles of academic freedom that, I suggest, are foundational to the promotion of intellectual development.

Advanced cognition as metacognition

If cognitive developmental theorists and researchers in the last quarter of the twentieth century had a motto, it was something like, "Anything adults can do, young children can do, too." Reacting to Piaget's earlier account of preschool children as "preoperational," developmental researchers devised ingenious ways to show, for example, that four-year-olds have "theories of mind," and theorists proceeded to argue with each other as to whether the tantalizing insights and skills of children not yet four might suffice for us to credit even the three-year-old mind with a theory of itself (Flavell, Miller, and Miller 2002). There is, to be sure, plenty of evidence for cognitive abilities common or universal among college students that are rarely or never seen in very young children (Moshman 1998, 1999, 2003). The developmental literature challenges us, however, to be more clear about just how advanced cognition differs from childish cognition, which apparently is not as childish as we thought. My response to this challenge, in a word, is metacognition.

By metacognition I mean knowledge about cognition itself and control of one's own cognitive processes. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that children lack metacognition or that adults are always metacognitive. Adolescents and adults, however, often achieve levels of conceptual knowledge about the nature and justification of knowledge and reasoning that are rarely or never seen in children. It is in this regard that later developing forms of cognition are most clearly advanced.

From logic to metalogic

Imagine a very young child who is presented with two boxes--one red and one blue--and is told there is a ball in one of them. Failing to find the ball in the red box, she immediately infers that it is in the blue box and looks for it there. We may conclude that her behavior involves a disjunctive inference of the form: p or q; not p; therefore, q (where p = the ball is in the red box, and q = the ball is in the blue box). To explain the fact that she routinely makes disjunctive inferences, we may even suggest that she in some sense "has" an inference schema of this form. However, there is no reason to assume she is aware of such a schema, or deliberately applies it for the purpose of reaching justifiable conclusions, or understands the logical necessity associated with deductive conclusions. Explicit understanding of the logic of disjunction exists only in the mind of the psychologist who is explaining her behavior. The child herself is probably not even aware that she has made an inference.

Consider now the following arguments, each consisting of two premises and a conclusion:

  1. Elephants are plants or animals.
    Elephants are not plants.
    Therefore, elephants are animals.
  2. Elephants are animals or plants.
    Elephants are not animals.
    Therefore, elephants are plants.

Even a young child would readily endorse the first argument as logical. Children as old as age nine or ten, however, reject arguments such as #2 as illogical. Most adolescents and adults, on the other hand, especially given sufficient opportunity to consider their responses, recognize in cases of this sort that the two arguments have the same logical form and are both valid. The second argument has a false second premise and a false conclusion, which is why children reject it, but it is nonetheless a valid argument in that the conclusion necessarily follows from the two premises. If the premises were true, the conclusion would necessarily be true as well.

This age difference, it should be emphasized, does not reflect an inability of children to make disjunctive inferences. As we saw in the first example, very young children routinely make instantaneous disjunctive inferences without even realizing they have done so. But that's precisely the problem. Lacking awareness of inference, they cannot explicitly evaluate arguments. Only as they approach adolescence do they sufficiently distinguish form from content to be able to recognize valid inference even in the case of arguments containing (what they deem to be) false premises and/or a false conclusion. What develops in the domain of logical reasoning, then, is not the basic ability to make logical inferences but the level of metalogical understanding about such inferences.

Psychological research indicates that metalogical understanding first appears about age six and continues to develop for many years. Its development involves processes of reflecting on one's inferences, coordinating them with each other, and interacting with other thinkers. Beginning about age eleven, it becomes possible to recognize and evaluate the logical interconnections among propositions that are hypothetical or even false. As a result, adolescents and adults are able, albeit inconsistently and to varying degrees, to consider the potential interrelations of multiple possibilities and thus to formulate and test explicit theories (for classic research and theory on "formal operations," Piaget's highest stage, see Inhelder and Piaget 1958; for recent reviews, see Moshman 1998, 1999).

The promotion of logical reasoning, then, should be aimed not at the implantation of correct inference schemas but rather at fostering metalogical understanding concerning the nature of logical argumentation and the justification of its results. Metalogical understanding can be promoted by encouraging reflection on and coordination of inferences and providing opportunities for collaborative reasoning among peers.

Advanced metacognition

At advanced levels, metacognitive development involves the development of explicit understanding about the fundamental nature and justifiability of knowledge and reasoning. These are matters of what philosophers call epistemology, the study of knowledge. Research indicates that such understanding--what psychologists call epistemic cognition--often continues to develop long beyond childhood, but that the extent of development is highly variable across individuals. Specifically, development may proceed from an objectivist epistemology to a subjectivist epistemology, and ultimately, in some cases, to a rationalist epistemology (for reviews, see Hofer and Pintrich 2002; King and Kitchener 1994). Each epistemology is constructed from earlier conceptions through processes of reflection and coordination, often in the context of social, and especially peer, interaction.

Consider the following claims:

  1. Whales are bigger than germs.
  2. 5 + 3 = 8
  3. Chocolate is better than vanilla.
  4. Einstein's theory is better than Newton's.
  5. Mozart's music is better than Madonna's.

Which of these claims are true, and how can such judgments be justified? How would objectivists, subjectivists, and rationalists, respectively, respond to such questions?

An objectivist, who sees truth as unproblematic, would see the first two claims as prototypical examples of knowledge. It can readily be established that each of these claims is true and that alternative claims, such as germs are bigger than whales or 5 + 3 = 12, are false. Claim 4 may be a more difficult matter because it involves technical knowledge, but an objectivist would maintain that this claim too is either true or false. If scientists determine that Einstein's theory is consistent with relevant evidence and Newton's theory is not, then Claim 4 is true. Claim 3 might be dismissed as a matter of opinion, not a matter of knowledge. Claim 5 might also be simply a matter of opinion, though perhaps an expert in music could establish its truth.

For the objectivist, then, truth and falsity are sharply distinct. True beliefs can be definitively distinguished from false beliefs on the basis of logic and evidence. Irreconcilable differences can only exist with regard to matters of opinion, which are sharply distinct from matters of fact and thus fall outside the domain of knowledge. And this dualistic conception, from its own point of view, is not just a point of view; it is the truth about truth.

Objectivity may come into question, however, among objectivists faced with substantive disagreements on important issues, especially if the disagreements represent divergent viewpoints that do not seem reconcilable through the use of logic, evidence, universal moral rules, etc. Recognizing and reflecting on their subjectivity, objectivists may increasingly understand that their objectivity is not as great as they thought, that subjective perspectives are the primary reality and cannot be transcended through the use of logic or any other general system of absolute rules. Reasons, they might come to believe, are always relative to particular perspectives. Justification, then, is only possible within specific contexts. Thus can an objectivist become subjectivist.

The subjectivist, who sees truth as relative to one's point of view, would see Claim 3 as a prototypical example of the relativity of beliefs. No flavor is intrinsically better than any other--flavor preferences are literally a matter of taste. But isn't everything, at least metaphorically, a matter of taste? I may prefer Mozart's music to Madonna's (Claim 5), but you may prefer Madonna's music to Mozart's. I may find a musicologist who believes Mozart's music is superior to that of Madonna, but even this so-called expert, the subjectivist would argue, evaluates music from his or her own musical perspective, which is no better than anyone else's perspective. Similarly, it may be true that most contemporary physicists prefer Einstein's theory to Newton's (Claim 4), but there was a time when Newton's theory prevailed, and there may come a time when Einstein's theory falls into disfavor. Even in science, the subjectivist would point out, our "facts" are a function of our theoretical perspectives, and such perspectives are ultimately subjective, neither true nor false.

But what about Claims 1 and 2, which seem beyond dispute? Knowledge is rarely this simple, a subjectivist may respond. Even in these cases, moreover, the claims are true only within a shared network of concepts. If we think of an enormous cloud of pollution as a "germ," then germs can be larger than whales. If we reason in base 6, then "12" means 6 + 2 and is the sum of 5 and 3. For the subjectivist, then, judgments of truth and falsity are always a function of one's perspective, and no perspective is better or worse than any other. In the end, everything turns out to be simply a matter of opinion.

The core problem with subjectivism as an epistemology is that, in its strong versions, it undermines its own claim to justification. If no view is justifiable, except from some perspective that is no better than any other perspective, then there is no reason to adopt or maintain a subjectivist view, except from a subjectivist perspective, which is no better than any other perspective.

At a more practical level, moreover, radical subjectivism provides no basis for choosing any course of action over any other, and thus provides no guidance for living one's life. These problems may arise in myriad forms as subjectivists encounter a variety of challenges and find themselves applying and defending a view that denies any justification for anything, including itself. This may have serious emotional consequences. Some subjectivists, however, find a way out of what initially seems an epistemic dead end. Reflection on the self-refuting nature of radical subjectivism and a new coordination of subjectivity and objectivity may enable the subjectivist to construct a rationalist epistemology.

A rationalist might take Claim 4 as a prototypical example of knowledge. Einstein's theory may not be true in the same simple sense that whales are bigger than germs or 5 + 3 = 8, but preferring it to Newton's theory is not just a matter of taste, like preferring one flavor to another. In complex domains of knowledge we may use justifiable criteria to evaluate various judgments and justifications. The criteria are not absolute--they are not beyond criticism--but neither are they arbitrary, or specific to arbitrary perspectives. As a result, we may have good reason to prefer some beliefs to others even if we cannot prove any of those beliefs true or false. It may not be clear how musical preferences such as Claim 5 can be justified--if they can be justified at all--but this doesn't mean all knowledge is entirely subjective any more than the existence of some relatively clear-cut truths--such as Claims 1 and 2--means that knowledge is intrinsically objective.

In sum, epistemic cognition, reflective knowledge about the nature and justifiability of knowledge and reasoning, is an advanced form of metacognition. Research and theory in developmental psychology converge on the view that epistemic cognition initially appears as an objectivist epistemology, which may last indefinitely. Some individuals in some social contexts, however, construct subjectivist epistemologies, and some of these go on to construct rationalist epistemologies. Thus, epistemic development is common in the college years and beyond but is not inevitable and is not closely tied to age.

The process of development

Epistemic cognition includes metalogical understanding but also knowledge about modes of justification more subtle than the formal rules of logic. Advanced cognitive development, moreover, also includes the development of principled moralities, explicit self-conceptions, and critical dispositions (Moshman 1999, 2003, in press). Three interrelated constructive processes are central to such development (Moshman 1999).

First, intellectual development proceeds through processes of reflection. Reflecting on our inferences, we construct increasingly sophisticated metalogical knowledge about the nature of inference, argument, and logic. Reflecting on diverse perspectives, we construct subjectivist epistemologies. Reflecting on the paradoxes of subjectivism, we may, or may not, find ways to overcome them. Reflecting on our interactions with others, we construct increasingly sophisticated moralities and identities.

Second, intricately interrelated with reflection are processes of coordination. Reflection on multiple points of view may enable us to coordinate them in such a way as to construct a higher-level view that transcends each. At the same time, the need to coordinate perspectives may be what motivates reflection, and the process of coordination may be simultaneously a process of reflection.

Finally, reflection and coordination often take place in the course of social interaction, especially peer interaction. Interacting with others routinely brings multiple perspectives into play, and thus demands coordination and reflection. This is especially so when alternative views come neither from a superior, whose views one might simply accept, nor from an inferior, whose views one might simply reject, but rather from an equal, whose views must be seriously considered and, perhaps, coordinated with one's own. Reflection, coordination, and social interaction, then, are not distinct processes but three aspects of the process of autonomous agents constructing advanced forms of knowledge and reasoning.

The promotion of development

A liberal education, presumably, aims to promote intellectual development. Psychological theory and research indicate that this can be done by encouraging and facilitating constructive processes of reflection, coordination, and social interaction. Such processes are not things that happen to an object but are the free actions of developing subjects and agents. Thus intellectual development requires an environment in which students freely access, formulate, express, discuss, defend, refine, coordinate, and reconsider various ideas and perspectives. In other words, intellectual development requires a context of intellectual freedom.

Given the centrality of intellectual freedom for development and education, we might define academic freedom as intellectual freedom in educational and research contexts (Moshman 2002). Academic freedom, in this view, is a condition for education, especially if we construe education as the promotion of intellectual development. To educate students we must respect their autonomy and the autonomy of those who teach them (Moshman 1994).

With these considerations in mind, I have been developing a set of principles designed to further education via intellectual freedom (see sidebar). These principles are generally consistent with those of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) (1940/2001) but apply to students and faculty at all levels of education. The principles owe much to First Amendment case law but they are not a summary of legal rights. Drawing on AAUP standards, First Amendment law, and developmental theory, the proposed principles respect the autonomy of students and teachers and promote constructive processes of reflection, coordination, and social interaction. Commitment to such principles and processes is a commitment to intellectual development.

David Moshman is professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


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Moshman, D. 2002. Homophobia and academic freedom. In E. P. Cramer, ed. Addressing homophobia and heterosexism on college campuses, 147-161.
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Moshman, D. 2003. Developmental change in adulthood. In J. Demick and C. Andreoletti, eds. Handbook of adult development, 43-61. New York: Plenum.

Moshman, D. (in press). Advanced moral development. In T. Wren, A. Tellings, and W. van Haaften, eds. Moral sensibilities III: The adolescent. Bemmel, Netherlands: Concorde.

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