Academic Freedom

By: Nancy Salvato

An article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education reflects the notion that academic freedom means being allowed to advocate a personal point of view in the classroom.

Outspoken scholars fared much better than one would have expected in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Richard Berthold, at the University of New Mexico, incurred only a reprimand for telling his freshman history class that “anyone who bombs the Pentagon gets an A in my book.” At Columbia University, Nicholas DeGenova got essentially a pass when he called for “a million Mogadishus.” Arthur Butz remained a professor in good standing at Northwestern University after he lauded Iran’s president for Holocaust denial. The moderate and deliberative response to such incidents and others suggests that academic freedom is in excellent health.

Others would define the above examples of academic freedom as proselytizing in the classroom or using the classroom as a “Bully Pulpit.”

Consensus Definition of Academic Freedom

Our liberty is placed at risk when academic freedom is abused in academia. In order to address the misuse of academic freedom, one must first understand the exact meaning of the words academic freedom in order to understand how it is abused. Herein lies the heart of the problem, there is no consensus definition of the words academic freedom.

The Random House Dictionary defines academic freedom as: Freedom of a teacher to discuss or investigate any controversial social, economic, or political problems without interference or penalty from officials, organized groups, etc. or, Freedom of a student to explore any field or hold any belief without interference from the teacher.

Contrast this with the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines academic freedom as: Liberty to teach, pursue and discuss knowledge without restriction or interference, as by school or public officials.

There is clearly a difference between these two definitions, the first allowing teachers to discuss or investigate any controversial social, economic, or political problems without interference or penalty and the second, simply teaching, pursuing, and discussing knowledge. Knowledge, which is defined as a body of truths or facts accumulated over the course of time, has very different implications for the average student who is supposed to be building a foundation of knowledge from which to draw on as an educated citizen with the ability to discern between fact and opinion and distinguish between credible and non-credible sources of information.

Presenting controversial ideas, ideas which are arguable or questionable, as accepted knowledge does a great disservice to those who haven’t sufficiently honed their critical thinking skills. Certainly, when a teacher addresses controversial issues, these types of issues should be distinguished as debatable, not verifiable truths. Furthermore, discussions of this nature are not a substitute for teaching knowledge. “Students cannot contest views unless they know they are contestable.” Teaching only one side of an issue, especially one that is contestable, “models an etiquette of conformity, deprives students of the tools to recognize opportunities for argument, and ensures that they lack the wherewithal to frame dissenting views.”

With Academic Freedom comes Academic Responsibility

In any case, teachers are expected to behave responsibly in the classroom. Because teaching is considered an art and a science, teachers should be required “to seek the truth” and “refrain from using the authority of an academic position to advocate on issues outside one’s professional competence.” Just as scientists hypothesize (speculate) and test their ideas to come closer to the truth before they are taught as theories (more or less verified or established as an explanation), teachers should present accepted theories regarding the subject matter in the social sciences. Teachers should not advocate a particular view regarding subject matter, regardless of whether it is within their professional area of expertise. Teachers should simply provide students credible information from which they can take an informed position on a subject and be able to justify their reasoning.

Students Rights in the Classroom

Academic freedom concerns both students’ and teachers’ rights in the classroom. According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), “Concerns should be addressed in a manner that is simultaneously respectful of students’ rights to learn and professors’ academic freedom to teach as they see fit.” However, there is ample evidence that “professors are compelling them [their students] to adopt certain viewpoints in order to complete assignments, earn good grades, and even graduate.” 7

Religious Institutions

In a 1957 Supreme Court decision, Felix Frankfurter acknowledges that religious universities have academic freedom rights of their own. Universities may determine for themselves, “who may teach what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” Because no professor is compelled to work at a religious university, religious universities may impose restrictions on academic freedom as long as these restrictions are made clear to the professors and the students.

Political Free Speech v Academic Freedom

Political free speech is meant to encourage deliberation on a subject until enough people are persuaded to call for action, ultimately resulting in public policy. On the other hand, the purpose of academic freedom is to encourage the search for truth and the exposure of error without fear of reprisal. Scholars should not have to fear the fate of Socrates, “whose pursuit of wisdom and virtue provoked his fellow Athenians into executing him.” However, with authority comes responsibility and scholars should not give credence to ideas which violate “accepted standards used to establish historical truth.”

Political Partisanship in our Universities

Faculty members should represent the entire range of the political spectrum to ensure that our students are exposed to a variety of “experiences, diverse backgrounds, and ideology.” Books written from both liberal and conservative perspectives should be required reading.

Unfortunately, studies show an inequity of the political spectrum represented on our nation’s campuses “Democrats outnumber Republicans by huge margins: 21:1 among anthropologists, 9:1 among political and legal philosophers, more than 8:1 among historians, and nearly 6:1 among political scientists (study by Dan Klein, cited in Neal 2006).”

󈬸% of faculty self-identified as liberals and 15% as conservative (Rothman et al. 2005).”

Marginalized scholars are asked to lecture less frequently and, “may face the prospect of hecklers who seek to disrupt their lectures or the presence of groups who aim to prevent them from speaking altogether.”

Campus Speech Codes

Speech codes, curtail free speech “because it might be perceived as hurtful or insensitive.” By forcing students to communicate in ways that are “politically correct” so as not to offend anyone, “students who have reasonable yet nonconforming points of view will be afraid to speak in classes.” It can be argued that because a university is a social institution, it “should be open to all opinions, popular and unpopular.”

Speech codes impose an “artificial reality on campus,” and by doing so “shield students from dissenting opinions.” This prevents students from learning how to defend their ideas and debate conflicting points of view.

Safe Lecturing

Political Correctness (PC) has served as a catalyst for professors to censor their own lectures to avoid offending particular groups of people. Further, professors are afraid to teach about certain ideas because less able students are prone to garbling the meaning of what was actually said. This is called, “Haphazard attentiveness.” They fear that students will “mistakenly “hear” things they might find objectionable,” and turn perceived “slights into public outrages.” Certain groups of students have “protected” status and it is only these groups which professors won’t risk offending. An ROTC cadet may suffer in silence when listening to a professor talk about an American imperialistic war yet “an African-American student who mangles “blacks disproportionately commit more violent crimes” into “blacks are criminals” can demand that the offense be rectified. Professors purge their courses of any material that might offend. “Safe lectures” beget boredom and this only encourages yet more sleeping and more garbling.” Needless to say, not teaching certain subject matter “deprives students of a genuine education.”

Garbling brought unfavorable media attention on Focus on the Family’s Dr. James Dobson when he objected to the academic materials included with a video starring SpongeBob Square pants. Dr. Dobson pointed out that there is a very real difference between tolerance and acceptance of homosexuality. His objection to using federal funding to advocate acceptance because it “would force some people to disavow their religious beliefs,” was painted as intolerance of homosexuality in the news.

Many people agree with and see the value in teaching students to think critically and intelligently about issues by first exposing them to the relative facts and then allowing them to explore many points of view on the subject. Good teachers show their students how to identify trustworthy sources for information and encourage their students to investigate which core beliefs may be influencing their sources. When reading about a subject, it’s important to be able to identify how a publication or a writer usually stands on the political spectrum in order to ascertain how this may influence the analysis on a subject. Furthermore, students should be aware of their own political persuasion to see how it may color how they interpret any findings. A good liberal arts education will help a person to see and question from many points of view. Or will it?

Teacher Preparation

The accrediting body, NCATE, requires that institutions of learning adopt certain standards, one being that teachers reflect certain dispositions, particular moral beliefs and attitudes. This “opens virtually all of a candidate’s thoughts and acts to scrutiny as part of the assessment process. It legitimizes an examination of the candidate’s moral attitudes and beliefs.” Those assessing “teaching candidates have been given unbounded power over what candidates may think and do, what they may believe and value, and those who are subject to this authority (the candidates) must guard their every expression of moral belief and commitment.”

This is in direct conflict with “the pursuit of knowledge, learning, thinking, and truth.”

Nancy Salvato is the President and Director of Constitutional Literacy Program for Basics Project, a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) research and educational project whose mission is to re-introduce the American public to the basic elements of our constitutional heritage while providing non-partisan, fact-based information on relevant socio-political issues important to our country, specifically the threats of aggressive Islamofascism and the American Fifth Column. She serves as the Assistant Provost for the American College of Education and as a Senior Editor for The New Media Journal. She is also a staff writer, for the New Media Alliance, Inc., a non-profit (501c3) coalition of writers and grass-roots media outlets, and a frequent contributing writer to The World & I educational magazine.

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  1. Pingback by University Update - Northwestern University - Academic Freedom

    [...] of Wisconsin Academic Freedom » This Summary is from an article posted at American Conservative News Politics & Opinion – The Land [...]

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