The American Historical Association Endorses the ABOR--in Theory · 26 March 2005

By Sara

Since its inception, the Academic Bill of Rights has endured frequent criticism from members of the academy, who claim that its tenets will infringe on professors' right to free expression in the classroom. These opponents most often cite the Bill's statement that faculty have an obligation to make students aware of the "spectrum of significant scholarly views" on the subjects they teach and the prohibition on using the classroom "for purposes of political, ideological, religious, or anti-religious indoctrination."

We have repeatedly pointed out that the precepts of our Bill are taken directly from official pronouncements on academic freedom made by the American Association of University Professors. As the principal opponent of the Academic Bill of Rights, the AAUP has refused to acknowledge this debt and implausibly maintains that measure we are supporting to reinforce the academic freedom code is itself "a grave threat to academic freedom."

The fact that it is the AAUP that has stood these issues on their head is confirmed by the Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct of the American Historical Association, which explicitly confirms the key tenets of our Academic Bill of Rights.

The newly revised Statement, which was formally adopted by Council on January 6, 2005, acknowledges both the right of academics to hold personal beliefs on their topics of study and the importance of presenting and considering multiple historical perspectives, noting that "practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view" but also: "Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present."

Similarly, the Academic Bill of Rights holds that "Curricula and reading lists in the humanities and social sciences should reflect the uncertainty and unsettled character of all human knowledge in these areas by providing students with dissenting sources and viewpoints where appropriate. While teachers are and should be free to pursue their own findings and perspectives in presenting their views, they should consider and make their students aware of other viewpoints. Academic disciplines should welcome a diversity of approaches to unsettled questions."

In describing how to handle these scholarly differences, the AHA again and again reinforces the importance of civility and respect, noting in one passage that "[Historians] believe in vigorous debate, but they also believe in civility" and in another paragraph, "they should respect and welcome divergent points of view even as they argue and subject those views to critical scrutiny."

The AHA also offers explicit guidance on teaching, and it is here that the resemblance to the Academic Bill of Rights is most apparent.

The Statement notes, "Integrity and teaching means presenting competing interpretations with fairness and intellectual honesty….The political social and religious beliefs of history teachers necessarily inform their work, but the right of the teacher to hold and express such convictions can never justify falsification, misrepresentation, or concealment, or the persistent intrusion of material unrelated to the subject of the course" (emphasis added).

The italicized phrase is critical, because it is identical to a phrase in the Academic Bill of Rights which has been singled out by the AAUP and other opponents as an unwarranted "restriction" on professors' free speech. Far from being unwarranted it is a phrase lifted from the AAUP's own academic freedom guidelines.

The AHA statement continues: "Furthermore, teachers should be mindful that students and other audience members have the right to disagree with a given interpretation or point of view. Students should be made aware of multiple causes and varying interpretations. Within the bounds of the historical topic being studied, the free expression of legitimate differences of opinion should always be a goal. Teachers should judge students' work on merit alone" (emphasis added).

To emphasize the importance of introducing diverse perspectives, the next paragraph reiterates the point: "Course offerings, textbooks, and public history presentations should address the diversity of human experience, recognizing that historical accuracy requires attention both to individual and cultural similarities and differences and to the larger global and historical context within which societies have evolved."

These statements duplicate the core points of the Academic Bill of Rights, including the prohibition on using the classroom for purposes of indoctrination or propaganda ("the persistent intrusion of material unrelated to the subject of the course") and the importance of presenting a spectrum of scholarly views ("students should be made aware of multiple causes and varying interpretations"). Yet when these points are made by supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights, the AAUP calls them a "grave threat to academic freedom."

An additional point of agreement between the AHA's Statement and the Academic Bill of Rights is apparent in the Statement's discussion of employment practices which holds that "Employment decisions always involve judgments. But, except in those cases in which federal law allows a specific preference, institutions should base hiring decisions as well as all decisions relating to reappointment, promotion, tenure, apprenticeship, graduate student assistantships, awards, and fellowships solely on professional qualifications without regard to sex, race, color, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, veteran status, age, certain physical handicaps, or marital status."

It is notable that this non-discrimination clause refers directly to "political affiliation" as a protected category, since many universities currently do not have official policies prohibiting discrimination in hiring or tenure practices based on political or ideological beliefs. It is also interesting that professors who claim to be appalled at legislation to enforce the Academic Bill of Rights are perfectly willing (as this passage shows) to accept government intrusion in the hiring process if the issue is skin color or gender or sexual orientation.

In sum, the American Historical Association's guidelines on professional conduct specifically endorse the key tenets of the Academic Bill of Rights, including the prohibition on persistently introducing irrelevant controversial topics in the classroom and the responsibility of faculty to expose students to a spectrum of scholarly views. Scholars and members of the AHA should welcome the Academic Bill of Rights as an attempt to see that its own statement of policy is actually put into practice.
Sara Dogan is National Campus Director of Students for Academic Freedom.