THE BLOG
10/18/2010 01:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Liberty and Learning: Academic Freedom as Intellectual Freedom

The aim of this new blog is to explain and promote academic freedom, by which I mean intellectual freedom in educational and research contexts. Academic freedom includes (a) the freedom of students to learn, think, speak, write, examine alternatives, seek information and discuss ideas; (b) the freedom of their teachers to devise and teach an academically defensible curriculum and to promote student learning and development; (c) the freedom of researchers to pursue the truth; and (d) the freedom of academic institutions to protect the academic freedom of students, teachers and researchers against external pressures.

In the next three posts I will correct three common misconceptions of academic freedom. Contrary to popular opinion, academic freedom is not a special right of college professors, it is not limited to higher education and it is not protected by the First Amendment.

In the next post I will explain that academic freedom is not a special right of tenured university professors to do as they please and get paid for it. On the contrary, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long been clear that academic freedom is intended to serve the common good, that it relates specifically to matters of intellectual freedom, that it applies to all teachers regardless of tenure status and that it applies to students as well.

Then I will debunk the notion that academic freedom applies only to higher education. Research in cognitive, developmental, and educational psychology has shown that learning and development are active self-regulated processes that require a full measure of intellectual freedom. Even before children get to school, they learn and develop by seeking information, formulating ideas, saying what they think, arguing with others and reaching conclusions. Academic freedom is required at all levels of education.

After that, I will break the bad news that the First Amendment does not protect academic freedom. It once did, and it still should, but academic freedom activists need to come to grips with the legal fact that it no longer does. I will briefly review how academic freedom came to be protected by the First Amendment in the mid-20th century and how the government, in a series of cases since 1988, has substantially regained legal control of students, teachers, and curriculum at all levels of public education.

But all is not lost. The concept of academic freedom predates First Amendment law and can survive without it. In my fifth post I will describe how the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (AFCON) has promoted and defended intellectual freedom in academic contexts across the state. If this is possible in Nebraska, it's possible anywhere, but to the best of my knowledge AFCON remains unique in the world. Hoping it will not remain so, I will provide guidance on founding an academic freedom coalition of your own.

After that, I expect to address issues as they arise, and hope to see questions, suggestions, and arguments from readers. As I consider how and why to protect academic freedom in particular cases, I hope to shed light on the nature of intellectual freedom and its crucial role in education. I aim to convince readers of all sorts -- that means you, whoever you are -- that we should unite in support of academic freedom. Whatever else we believe and do, we should support academic freedom because it provides schools with academic integrity, maximizes the quality of education and research, and protects students from indoctrination.