A Liberal View: Academic Freedom Should Be Apolitical · 17 October 2006

Filed under: Commentary
Based on my experience in these various roles, I oppose any legislation that would seek to control faculty conduct in university classrooms. I recently wrote an article to that effect in InsideHigherEd. I believe such legislation can threaten freedom of inquiry and critical thinking, and also that it is unnecessary because colleges and universities currently have guidelines and academic standards in place that, if properly applied, are adequate to protect against faculty who use their classrooms to express their personal agendas in areas that are not relevant to the curriculum.

My article prompted an exchange of views with David Horowitz, the author of the “Academic Bill of Rights.” Mr. Horowitz responded that no legislation connected with his Academic Bill of Rights is binding (they are only resolutions about the importance of intellectual diversity), and that he does “not believe legislatures are suited to fixing the academic problems that need to be addressed. Only the university itself can do this.”

Mr. Horowitz has also written a book entitled The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, in which he briefly describes the views and careers of a collective group whom he labels as “ideologues of the left” and “political activists masquerading as scholars.” I have criticized this book for its exclusive focus on the political left and for failing to acknowledge that abuses of academic freedom occur across the entire political spectrum.

It turns out that however much Mr. Horowitz and I may disagree on partisan political issues -- my views tend to be more liberal than his -- we do share much common ground in the area of academic freedom. I maintain, and Mr. Horowitz agrees, that the individuals profiled in The Professors are not only entitled to hold their personal viewpoints, but they are entitled to express those viewpoints in public, even when they are stridently anti-American. If we have learned anything from the past 90 years of First Amendment jurisprudence, it is that we must protect the right of all individuals to speak their minds and allow what Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes called the “marketplace of ideas” to sort out what is worthy of our consideration. After all, when members of the American Nazi Party were denied a permit to hold a parade in Skokie, Illinois, it was the American Civil Liberties Union that came to the party’s defense, protecting the right of even this most odious organization to express its views in public.

I also maintain, and Mr. Horowitz agrees, that whatever one’s position might be on an issue, be it political, social, religious, or any other topic, a professor should not use the forum of a captive audience in a classroom as an opportunity to express his or her views with the intention of convincing students of the correctness of that position. Only in the rare instance when the subject of the course is clearly appropriate for the injection of personal beliefs, and the students are adequately informed in advance, may the professor be considered within the bounds of academic freedom to express his or her own viewpoints, but even then there should be appropriate opportunity and respect for contrary views of others in the class. Of course, this argument holds true primarily for public universities, to a slightly lesser degree for secular private schools, and to a more limited extent for private institutions affiliated with religious organizations, as I point out below.

Finally, I maintain and Mr. Horowitz concurs that despite his exclusive focus on left-leaning faculty in The Professors, and the “danger” presented by the injection of their political viewpoints into their classroom teaching, the problem is not exclusively one of liberal faculty imposing their views on unwilling but impressionable students. Many conservative faculty are equally guilty of crossing over the line by using their classrooms as a forum for preaching their personal philosophies.

I know from my personal experience both as a student and later as a professor in law school that what one learns about the law depends to a considerable extent on the viewpoint of the instructor. In the area of criminal law and criminal procedure, for example, a student is likely to get a very different educational experience depending on whether the instructor is a former prosecuting attorney or public defender. In an area such as labor law, what one is taught may depend on whether the instructor is pro-employer (politically conservative) or pro-labor (politically liberal). I recall an example of a former student at the law school where I taught, who complained of a faculty member’s course on employment law in which he reportedly injected his conservative personal views that the student perceived as being strongly biased against women and minorities.
Regardless of our place on the liberal-conservative continuum, we should at least agree that there is very little that can pass as “truth” in the realm of politics or religion. The role of the instructor should be, in my view, to present ideas and concepts for students to debate, discuss, criticize and ultimately to form their own opinions. It should not be to present the “truth” for the students to absorb uncritically.

In my present faculty position I teach law, mostly to undergraduates. My primary focus is on Constitutional law, particularly the First Amendment. I use a modified version of the Socratic method in which I draw students into a classroom discussion and debate on the topic of the day, usually presented in reports of court decisions. I tell my students that they are free to choose either side of the issue presented by a case, and I will choose the other side and argue against them. If I convince them that I am right and they change their position, I will often then change mine and continue the debate from the other side. My goal is not to get them to think as I do, but to get them to think. And in doing so, I frequently point out to them that this approach is not just a hollow academic exercise, for in the many U.S. Supreme Court cases decided by a 5-4 vote, 44 percent of the justices on the Court disagree with the Law of the Land. The concepts of “right” and “wrong” rarely apply in absolute terms in these cases.

As a measure of my success in applying this approach in the classroom, I can honestly say that many of my students do not know my political leanings. I consider it a badge of honor that several years ago a student in a course at the law school where I was teaching wrote in a year-end course evaluation that he was put off by my conservative political position on a number of issues that arose throughout the semester. At the time, I was a member of the Lawyers Committee for the state chapter of the ACLU.

That being said, we should also recognize that there are times and places where an objective approach may not be appropriate. I teach at a state-supported public university. At such an institution, the doctrine of Intelligent Design is not appropriate for instruction in biology classes, and at least one court has rendered the opinion that this is a religious doctrine masquerading as science. However, it would be quite another matter if Intelligent Design were to be offered as a competing theory with evolution (or even as the only viable theory, discounting evolution entirely) at a private institution. The Establishment Clause concerns embodied in the First Amendment do not apply to private universities where no state action in support of religion can be inferred.

As another example, if I am teaching a class on Constitutional Law, in discussing the case of Roe v. Wade it is not my role (and indeed, it is not my right) to convince my students that abortion should or should not be permitted by law. My role should be to help my students understand the reasoning of the Supreme Court, the issues raised by the majority and dissenting opinions, and to evaluate critically those views expressed by the Court. Whether they agree with the Court’s ruling is a personal decision that each student should arrive at independently. There is a “correct” answer to the question of what the Court decided in Roe v. Wade, but at least in a public university classroom setting there is no “right” answer to the question of whether abortion should be permitted or prohibited by law.

In contrast, for someone teaching Constitutional Law at a Roman Catholic institution, the situation may be very different. The injection of the instructor’s personal views on abortion (presumably anti-) would be justifiable in the context of an educational experience at a religious institution where students are informed of the philosophical foundations in advance and, presumably, have consented to them, if not actively sought them out.

The discussion over academic standards and academic freedom in the classroom should not be framed in terms of liberal, or even radical, indoctrination of students. Rather, it should be a question of teaching the subject matter using appropriate viewpoint-neutral techniques. Arguments over whether more liberal than conservative professors are “guilty” of injecting their personal views into their classroom instruction detract from the more important issue on which both liberals and conservatives can find common ground – the need to raise academic standards and improve the quality of education by challenging students to think critically and introspectively, to shop freely in the marketplace of ideas, and to develop their personal philosophy with guidance from those whom they respect and trust.