Myths, Realities About Academic Freedom · 17 July 2006

Filed under: Ohio, Replies to Critics

By Marc V. Simon--Toledo Blade--06/24/06

Freedom: It's one thing conservatives and liberals can agree on. Americans love freedom and will generally fight to the death for it. But mention academic freedom, and somehow the patriotic feeling fades into partisan divisiveness.

As a university professor I have been struck by the number of articles and op-eds on this subject, and how divorced they are from the reality I see on university campuses. So I'd like to dispel some myths.

Myth #1: Professors can say anything they want in the classroom.

Academic freedom carries with it academic responsibility. It is not the right to say or do anything in a classroom. You can't spout off on religion or politics when it has no relation to the subject you are teaching. What professors do in the classroom must have an educational purpose grounded in respect for students and learning and in knowledge of the discipline.

Academic freedom does give us tolerance for different approaches to teaching, and this allows us to be creative in our efforts to engage the minds of our students. But there are limits. You can't insult or verbally abuse students when they give an answer you don't like. You can't intimidate or place students in danger.

When professors go over the line, whether or not a student complains, university administrators take it seriously, and will sanction a professor appropriately. Expulsion from the classroom is one option that has occurred on my campus. Intolerance is not tolerated.

Myth #2: Professors indoctrinate students.

This myth is based on two false assumptions. First, professors have an inordinate power to shape the political and religious views of our students. Second, liberal professors teach things that will convert students to leftist causes, and conservatives teach things that will cause students to adopt right-wing views.

Professors do influence students. We work hard to open minds, to educate, to get students to think critically and independently. When I read the conservative attacks, though, I sometimes wish I had the power they assume I possess. If only I were so powerful, I would implement my master plan and convince students to read assignments before class, speak up in discussion, and study for exams sometime before midnight the previous day.

The fact is that professors have little impact on the political or religious values that students hold. We are not their parents, and we are not rock stars. Besides, we understand that the best way to educate is not to "indoctrinate" but to get students to look at issues from new perspectives, to get them to be critical thinkers, and then let them make up their own minds.

Do our students become liberal ideologues? A few will. And a few others will become conservative reactionaries. So goes the intellectual diversity of our free nation. However, my experience tells me that students will, ultimately, think for themselves. They will make their own decisions based on the values they've brought from home, the values of their peers, and the intellectual skills they've cultivated in their education.

Early in my career, after teaching a course that addressed the ethics of nuclear war, a student, who was an Army major who worked with nuclear weapons, told me that before taking my class, he believed it would always be wrong to use nuclear weapons. However, because of our class discussions, he had now changed his mind.

Though this went against my personal ethical views, it was a compliment to my ability to teach.

Myth #3: "Balanced" teaching is better.

David Horowitz, the leader of a group that attacks academic freedom, has suggested that all theories should be provided equal time in the classroom. This sounds deceptively fair, but it would mean that a public health professor would have to give all sides of the issue of whether smoking causes cancer. Do we really want professors to teach all sides, or do we want them to teach what their scientific discipline says is the best knowledge of the time?

I have another problem with this "balanced" approach, which has even found its way into bills before state legislatures. In most areas of knowledge there are dozens of theories, some more plausible than others. Do I really have time to teach all of these?

One of the most common student complaints about professors is that we are too boring. If they think we're boring now, just wait until I have to teach them 14 different theories on the causes of war for the sake of perceived balance rather than scientific relevance.

Myth #4: Higher education needs government oversight.

The argument here is that higher education is so dominated by liberals that it's necessary for government to ensure that the curriculum is fair and balanced and that students are protected from indoctrination.

The problem with this idea, as countries without academic freedom have learned, is that politics will substitute for science and alter the curriculum to reflect the ideology of the people in power.

It is important that professors be judged by academic peers and administrators, not politicians with partisan agendas. Do you want politics to dictate what is taught to your future medical doctor, our civil engineers, your child's teachers? Why is it that the best minds from places like the Middle East and China, where there is no academic freedom, come to study in the U.S.?

If we legislate classroom content at the college level, we deprive students of the most up-to-date knowledge and deprive professors of the ability to teach effectively. We would become purveyors of popular, non-controversial views, not pursuers of knowledge, understanding, and creativity.

In America we have been wise to preserve academic freedom. It has given us the best higher education system in the world and produces, overall, the most advanced basic and applied research.

We in the academic profession will keep fighting to preserve these traditions. Our system is not perfect (some of us are still boring!), but it produces better students and scientific discoveries than any other.

Marc V. Simon is associate professor and chairman of the department of political science at Bowling Green State University.

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