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Academic Freedom and Indoctrination

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December 2010 featured an unexpected academic freedom controversy. The spark was a change in academic freedom policy at Pennsylvania State University, approved by its faculty senate on Dec. 7. The revised policy included language clarifying the freedom of faculty in class to address issues that might be deemed controversial or beyond the scope of their expertise and the right of students to be taught what they came to learn in a manner that leaves them free to think about it for themselves.

David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, had earlier praised the previous Penn State academic freedom policy for being among the few that seriously protected the academic freedom of students, including their freedom not to be indoctrinated in political views irrelevant to the course they are taking. He immediately denounced the change.

In a Dec.14 article on Penn State's policy revisions, Inside Higher Ed quoted Cary Nelson, President of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who described the old Penn State policy as unusually "restrictive" with regard to "intellectual freedom in the classroom" and deemed the revised policy "a vast improvement." John K. Wilson's blog, "College Freedom" was also quoted as endorsing the revision as "dramatically improved."

On the National Association of Scholars (NAS) website later that day, Ashley Thorne and Stephen Balch posted an article entitled, "Free to indoctrinate: The AAUP applauds Penn State's retreat from academic freedom." Noting that the Penn State policy had been "one of the best institutional statements on academic freedom in the United States, according to David Horowitz," they lamented that it was "about to be ruined," disagreeing with the AAUP's Cary Nelson and "his groupie John K. Wilson."

Wilson responded with a Dec. 15 post on his blog denying that he was anyone's groupie and denouncing NAS for becoming "a purely political vehicle for right-wing ideology." NAS in the past, he wrote, "at least had a casual acquaintance with academic freedom," but NAS today would repudiate academic freedom in the pursuit of its political agenda.

The exchange continued, with Balch (Dec. 17) characterizing Wilson's Dec. 15 post as "a piece that exudes dudgeon from beginning to end" and Wilson responding on December 20 that what Balch offered is "a twisted picture of academic freedom." It might seem that the only thing Balch and Wilson can agree on is that they disagree at a most fundamental level about academic freedom.

But I think they're both wrong about that. Whether they know it or not, Balch and Wilson are fundamentally in agreement. Both agree that faculty should have authority over curriculum and both agree that students have a right not to be indoctrinated. And both, I might add, are passionately committed to academic freedom.

Stanley Fish, who blogs on academic freedom and related matters for the New York Times, noted the controversy regarding Penn State in a Dec. 20 post. In our support of intellectual freedom in education, he suggested, "we're all conservatives now." Given that intellectual freedom falls squarely in the liberal tradition of the Enlightenment, it could equally be said that we're all liberals. On core issues of principle, everyone believes in academic freedom.

AAUP President Cary Nelson took this a step further in a Dec. 21 opinion piece in Inside Higher Ed, proposing a detailed listing of what academic freedom does and does not protect and essentially daring anyone to disagree. Consistent with AAUP policy, he explicitly included students within the scope of academic freedom. One can always quibble about specific formulations but it seems to me none of the participants in the academic freedom arguments would find much here to disagree with.

Thus I agree with Fish and Nelson. At the most fundamental level, we all support essentially the same principles of academic freedom, including respect for the authority of faculty over the curriculum and respect for the right of students not to be indoctrinated.

That's not to say there are no disagreements. But the disagreements are mostly about empirical matters rather than matters of principle. NAS perceives pervasive indoctrination in liberal and leftist ideologies and believes conservative students are often censored, restricted, or penalized. AAUP believes such problems are rare. But everyone agrees, in principle, that indoctrination and censorship are wrong regardless of who censors or indoctrinates whom.

The devil may be in the details, but as we argue about particular policies and cases let's not forget that we're largely in agreement on fundamental principles. Teachers must have the freedom to teach and must exercise their academic freedom in ways that respect the academic freedom of their students.