An Academic Freedom Bill I Won't Support · 12 February 2006

Filed under: Press Coverage

By David

The Arizona legislature is now considering an amendment to its higher education statutes which I will oppose. The Amendment - SB 1331 -- is called "Alternative Coursework and Materials" and would guarantee students "an alternative course, alternative coursework, alternative learning materials or alternative activity" if the students were personally offended by the academic matter with which they were presented. They would have the right to such alternatives "without financial or academic penalty" if they objected "on the basis that [the material] "conflicts with the student's beliefs or practices in sex, morality or religion."

At first glance this legislation might appear to be authored by the academic freedom movement with which I am associated and which I have launched in the name of intellectual diversity. Lending credibility to this impression would be the fact that the Bill's sponsors are conservative and Republican. But this impression would be wrong. In fact, I oppose the bill which is anti-intellectual and attacks the very core of what a liberal - or democratic - education should be about, which is to challenge students' habitual modes of thinking and teach them to think for themselves. The core mission of education in a democracy is to train a citizenry that thinks for itself.

Under the proposed bill, SB 1331, students could avoid being challenged at all. This is not education. It is a form of self-indoctrination. It is exactly what my campaign for academic freedom is designed to oppose. My Academic Bill of Rights is a challenge to the current imposition of intellectual orthodoxies by professors who have abandoned academic professionalism for academic activism.

The politicization of the classroom, which is common today, the ridicule and harassment of students who are religious, who are white, and who have traditionalist beliefs was undoubtedly an inspiration for the misguided Arizona legislation. But its sponsors have not taken their cue from my Academic Bill of Rights, which preserves the appropriate relationship between teacher and student. Instead they have been influenced by the very activists who have made universities the most intellectually repressive institutions in American life.

After all, the idea that students should avoid discomforting moments in their educational vocation is the precise philosophical assumption of leftwing diversity movements. What is "political correctness" and what are "speech codes" but attempts to enforce a political and ideological orthodoxy on members of the academic community by claiming that unorthodox ideas are offensive?

What we have here is another expression of the historic clash between equality and liberty. The academic left acts in the name of equality, using minorities, whose sensibilities are alleged to be injured by the presence of non-leftist ideas as a trump card to prevent such views from being expressed.

It is these abusive attempts by activist academics to force their orthodoxies on their students that have created the climate in which bills like SB 1331 appear. This is a case of the chickens coming home to roost.

The solution to these problems is to return to the professional standards once championed (and now abandoned) by the American Association of University Professors, whose pronouncements on academic freedom form the basis of the Academic Bill of Rights.

The role of a teacher is to challenge students to break out of the habitual thought patterns with which they have been comfortable and begin to think for themselves. To do this they have to trust their professors to lead them into discomfort. The basis of trust is the professionalism of the teacher. It is the trust that the teacher is not there to seduce them into accepting his prejudices and opinions. The teacher is there to share his expertise, not to use the authority of the classroom to compel the student to accept his conclusions on matters that are and will remain controversial. Facts are one thing, opinions are another. When professors violate this trust by introducing their political agendas into the classroom - e.g., by railing against the war in Iraq -- they betray their professional calling. The task of a teacher is to teach students how to think, not what to think.

The Academic Bill of Rights is an attempt to restore professionalism to the classroom. By contrast, SB 1331 is an attempt to allow students to avoid the unprofessional classroom. But in providing students with the right to avoid the unprofessional classroom SB 1331 also encourages them to avoid the discomfort of learning. That is why it is anti-intellectual and why I am opposed to it.