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Academic “Freedom”

Higher education deeply cherishes the notion of skeptical and unsparing critical inquiry—just not about itself. Last year, the Students for Academic Freedom (SAF) drew up a Student Bill of Rights, a carefully worded manifesto about the importance of intellectual freedom for teachers and students. Insisting that students not be subjected to political indoctrination in the guise of instruction, the document invoked the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, drawn up by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP).

According to it, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” The AAUP is evidently unhappy at having its own words quoted back to it. It has just issued a lengthy committee report, suggesting that those words don’t exactly mean what they say:

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 AAUP considers four specific charges leveled against the modern university: that many professors routinely practice political indoctrination, fail to present alternative points of view, are hostile to students’ political or religious views, and introduce irrelevant political digressions into class. In each instance, the charge is not so much as considered but explained away.

How can there be personal bias, it asks, when course descriptions are vetted by departments and administrations? The possibility that those departmental colleagues might themselves have an overwhelming ideological uniformity is not considered. Complaints about hostility? Students have no “right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged.” Ideological one-sidedness? One must not restrict the legitimate prerogative of a teacher to present his material in his own way. And so on, in alternately blithe and testy tones, to the conclusion that the only chronic problem truly afflicting higher education is the fascistic disposition of its critics: “calls for the regulation of higher education are almost invariably appeals to the coercive power of the state.”

Anyone who follows education will recognize some of the serious controversies and scandals that go utterly unmentioned in the AAUP report. Just to name one, there is the matter of “disposition assessment.” The guidelines of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, formulated in 2002, explain that universities should not only evaluate such understandable criteria as punctuality and dress but the political views of its students: “if . . . a commitment to social justice is one disposition it expects of teachers who can become agents of change, then it is expect that unit assessments include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice.”

This came to light in 2005, when Ed Swan, a student at Washington State University, was kicked out of its teachers program for his conservative views. The revelation that professors of education were entitled to act as grand inquisitors, drawing out the political orientation of their students by carefully formulated “unit assignments,” inspired a strongly worded protest by the National Association of Scholars to the U. S. Department of Education.

About all of this there is not one word in the report of the AAUP. Although it warns sternly of “the coercive power of the state,” it ignores how state power is already at play, massively and implacably, wherever its state-supported universities and public schools are enforcing the “disposition” control of the NCATE. The AAUP has issued a document that is deeply discreditable to all concerned, a sad performance of shooting the messenger from behind circled wagons. This time, however, there are far too many messengers to shoot.



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