Tennessee is now the second state, after Louisiana, to pass a law protecting the academic freedom of teachers in public elementary and secondary education. Other states are likely to follow suit.
The new wave of academic freedom laws require governing boards and administrators to recognize the responsibility of teachers to help students understand and analyze ideas presented in the approved curriculum. This includes respecting their authority to present and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of theories included in the curriculum.
The new laws recognize, moreover, the responsibility of schools to their students. They require governing boards and administrators to create an environment that encourages active exploration of ideas, respect for diverse opinions, concern for relevant evidence, and the development of critical thinking.
Unfortunately, there is a major problem with these laws. Fortunately, it is easily corrected, at least in principle.
Constitutional law since the 1960s has made it clear that legislatures and other governmental authorities responsible for public schools cannot forbid the teaching of evolution and cannot require equal treatment for creationism, even when it is dressed up as "creation science" or "intelligent design." After repeated failures to modify the curriculum, creationists now seek to protect the academic freedom of creationist teachers.
Specifically, the new academic freedom laws recognize the right of individual teachers to discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution and alternative views. That does not change the curriculum itself but may embolden creationist teachers to question what they teach.
To make matters worse, in recent years the political right not only continues to challenge evolution but also questions global warming and other scientific phenomena. The new academic freedom laws are not just about evolution. They list multiple aspects of science that their supporters deem especially problematic, always including evolution and global warming.
The prospect of creationist teachers questioning evolution, however, should not stop us from promoting academic freedom. Rather than opposing academic freedom for creationist teachers, we should advocate amendments that support academic freedom equally for all teachers and all students.
Two changes are needed. First, the laws should not single out particular topics or theories for special question. State legislatures may believe that scientific conclusions about evolution or global warming are more questionable than conclusions in other areas of science, but it is not for them to determine this. Science educators should discuss the scientific strengths and weaknesses of all ideas that merit such treatment.
Second, the laws should not single out science. There is no reason to suggest to students that what they learn in history or literature classes is the unquestioned truth or that scientific knowledge is less justified or more controversial than other knowledge. Teachers should be free to present the strengths and weaknesses of all ideas in all areas of study, and students should be encouraged to think critically in all their classes.
In addition to enhancing education, generalizing these laws protects them from constitutional challenge. A law that furthers religious and political ideas favored by a state legislature is likely to be seen as the next generation of creationism and struck down as a violation of the First Amendment. A law that applies equally to all teachers, students, and ideas is far more likely to be upheld.
There is in fact an interesting precedent. The federal Equal Access Act, which protects the equal right of all student-initiated groups to meet on school premises, was originally intended to protect religious groups and was initially limited to such groups. The final law, however, protects all student groups equally, which enabled it to withstand constitutional challenge.
Should creationist teachers have academic freedom? Of course, as should all teachers. Academic freedom does not permit a teacher to ignore the approved curriculum or to indoctrinate a captive audience of students in his or her religious or political views, whatever those may be. It does, however, leave teachers free to present relevant arguments and alternatives and to promote critical thinking.
Academic freedom is for everyone engaged in teaching and learning. That certainly includes teaching and learning about the origin, history, current state, and potential futures of the earth and its inhabitants. But it must include the rest of science as well, and the rest of education too.