Don't Let Lawmakers Into College Classrooms · 15 May 2005

Don't Let Lawmakers Into College Classrooms

Editorial from the Knoxville News-Sentinel--04/05/05

Academic freedom isn't in the Constitution, yet it is - or should be - one of our cherished rights.

The importance of allowing the professors in our colleges and universities the flexibility to teach as they think best should be untouchable.

The issue arises because of a bill in the state Legislature ostensibly to protect student academic rights. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Sen. Raymond Finney, R-Maryville, is expected to be before the Senate Education Committee Wednesday.

According to the bill, students have "the right to expect that their academic freedom will not be infringed upon by instructors who create a hostile environment toward their political or religious beliefs or who introduce controversial matter into the classroom or course work that is substantially unrelated to the subject of study."

The bill is similar to legislation proposed in at least 20 states that is based on ideals backed by Students for Academic Freedom, a Washington, D.C.-based student network founded by conservative activist David Horowitz.

Critics say it's a political agenda. The American Association of University Professors opposes Horowitz's bill of rights, and John Petersen, president of the University of Tennessee, said he doesn't believe the legislation is necessary.

Tom Milligan, associate vice chancellor on UT's Knoxville campus, said procedures already are in place in faculty and student handbooks "that very adequately deal with issues of free speech."

Campfield says the bill is intended to "uphold the presence of multisided academic debate on our campuses. Most campuses are very liberal, and professors are ashamedly not very open-minded toward our point of view."

Our point of view? Whose point of view?

We submit that college campuses are not and should not be places where a political agenda of any kind is taught. Facts and figures and theories, indeed, are taught, but the main thing students are taught is to think for themselves.

Facts and figures can change with the years and with academic theories, but once a student has the tools - the facility of mind - to examine facts and interpret results, that tool is forever.

This is how Petersen phrased it: "I don't care what side of the fence you are on in an issue, having the ability to be exposed to diverse opinions so you can formulate arguments and understand really helps you in your life."

We trust that legislators don't want students to be indoctrinated in any way, either liberal or conservative.

We also refer readers to the recent comments made in our Perspective section by Robert Bast, associate professor of history at UT. He explains how he teaches his students to think: "I have refused to allow my students to take refuge in the intellectual models they brought with them to campus - not until they've learned to strip them down, study the parts and put them back together again."

Critical thinking, he said, "is a skill best acquired in argument and passionate debate."

And, for those conservatives who are afraid their children will go off to college and be indoctrinated by their liberal professors, he has this to say: "Your daughters and sons are more resourceful and less malleable than you think."

Bast also points out that conservatives once opposed big government, and allowing lawmakers to regulate what is taught in the classroom can be nothing other than big government.

This legislation is general and nonspecific. It underestimates both our professors and their students.

In short, it interferes with the professors' charge to teach. We believe professors should be left alone to do what they know best how to do: teach our youths to think for themselves.

Read Sara Dogan's response to this article.