Freedom to Teach?

academe.jpgThe American Association of University Professors recently issued a white paper on academic freedom in the classroom. The report is a statement of principles by its Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which includes law professors Matthew Finkin (Illinois) and Robert Post (Yale), in response to a series of calls (including legislative proposals) for “balance” and neutrality of viewpoint in the classroom:

[C]ontemporary critics of higher education argue that instructors must refrain from stating strong opinions, for doing so would both lack balance and constitute indoctrination; that instructors must not advance propositions germane to a subject if some students with deeply held religious or political beliefs might be offended, for

doing so would create a hostile learning environment;and that instructors must abjure allusions to persons or

events that advance discussion but that some students might fail to perceive to be clearly connected to a course

description, for doing so would inject irrelevant material into the classroom. Such restrictions would excise “freedom

in the classroom” from the 1940 Statement; they would conduce not to learning but to intellectual sterility.

The response of the AAUP can be summed up in their own words as follows:

Close analysis of recent charges of classroom abuse demonstrates that these criticisms

do not seek to vindicate professional standards, because they proceed on premises that are inconsistent with

the mission and practice of higher education. Calls for the regulation of higher education are

almost invariably appeals to the coercive power of the state. In recent attempts to pass legislation to monitor

and constrain faculty in the classroom lies a deep menace, which the architects of the American concept

of academic freedom properly conceived as a potential “tyranny of public opinion.” American universities

have been subject to this tyranny in the past. Walter Gellhorn observed in 1952 that the drive to root out

communists was based on the assumption that “they will abuse their academic privileges by seeking to

indoctrinate students.” Gellhorn noted that when the New York legislature declared in 1949 that communists

ought not be permitted to teach because they disseminate propaganda, the legislature added that the

propaganda “was frequently ‘sufficiently subtle to escape detection in the classroom.’” Modern critics of the university seek to impose on university classrooms mandatory and ill-conceived

standards of “balance,” “diversity,” and “respect.” We ought to learn from history that the vitality of

institutions of higher learning has been damaged far more by efforts to correct abuses of freedom than by

those alleged abuses. We ought to learn from history that education cannot possibly thrive in an

atmosphere of state-encouraged suspicion and surveillance.

The report (which is available in the latest issue of Academe) makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in ideas of academic freedom in the classroom and teaching more generally. In my free speech and privacy classes at Wash. U., we inevitably encounter controversial issues, both about the jurisprudence and the political struggles that guide it, including terrorism, obscenity, criticism of the government, and older issues that once convulsed the nation like Vietnam and the Red Scares. I rarely take stands (at least intentionally) on these questions, but mostly because I believe that the nature of the subject demands a certain agnosticism from me given the commitments to the free exchange of ideas that is at issue in the jurisprudence. In this regard, recognizing my own ability as instructor to affect the marketplace of ideas in my classroom, I take the invitation that Tim has just given to the Senate. Sometimes I will take positions (whether I agree with them or not) in order to advance the discussion, but I try not to get too ideological, even though I have strong personal and scholarly views that are inevitable given the amount of time I spend thinking about questions of free speech and privacy in a democratic society.

But I do think it’s both inevitable and appropriate that faculty will bring their opinions as well as their knowledge into the classroom (even with the big assumption that we can separate the two). Scholars (especially those in the humanities and law schools) spend much of each day thinking and writing and developing normative or interpretive arguments. These arguments are put before the public in their writing and in the media, and there is no reason that they should not be presented to their students. Indeed, to do otherwise would be to deprive the students of the very thing they are paying a small fortune to receive – to be exposed to intelligent people with (hopefully) original thoughts about important topics. Of course, faculty must be careful not to present their ideas as truth – if they are making an argument, they must provide sufficient opportunities to be disagreed with (especially in law schools, where this exchange can serve valuable goals at the heart of the pedagogical project). Faculty may cross the line here, but I agree with the AAUP report that when this happens, internal mechanisms of professional discipline, not external regulation, is the appropriate response.

In any event, the report is a thoughtful and thought-provoking take on some critical and timely issues, and even if you don’t agree with me (or them), it’s well worth reading and thinking about.

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1 Response

  1. Professors should at at least try to present controversial issues in a balanced manner or somehow indicate their others may think differently than they do. It is difficult to do, and I have seen it done well on one particular website

    That said, students should learn to question authority – including the authority of their instructors. They will need to figure out for themselves whether their opinionated professor is making sense or being ridiculous. These critical thinking are essential.

    Having a professor teach his/her own students to question even the professor’s authority would go a long way to enhancing a student’s essential critical thinking skills.