12/21/2014 09:38 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2015

English Teachers Adopt Statement on Academic Freedom

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) has adopted a new position statement on academic freedom. The statement consists of two introductory paragraphs and five principles.

I can't object to any of the principles, which were adapted from those proposed in my book Liberty and Learning. But I thought I might elaborate a bit.

The first paragraph defines academic freedom as "intellectual freedom in academic contexts." It notes that NCTE's "support of intellectual freedom" includes recognizing the right of students "to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others."

The "protection of academic freedom," concludes the first paragraph, is "required at all levels of education" for four reasons. First, it "serves the common good" of society as a whole. Second, it enhances the "academic integrity" of the educational institution by insulating academic decision making from external pressures. Third, it enhances the overall quality of education, which thrives on intellectual freedom. And finally, it protects students from indoctrination.

The second paragraph notes that academic freedom includes an "obligation to uphold the ethics of respect and protect the values of inquiry necessary for all teaching and learning" and characterizes this obligation as both "moral and educational." It "encourages the discussion of the principles of academic freedom, listed below, within faculties and institutions for the purpose of developing policies and procedures that will protect such freedoms."

The statement then lists five principles concerning freedoms of belief, expression, and inquiry; freedom from indoctrination; and associated rights. I will address these in turn.

Freedom of Belief and Identity. The principle reads: "Educational institutions may present alternative views and values, but may not impose or require belief or commitment." The reference to identity acknowledges that some of our beliefs fit together into religious, political, or other ideologies to which we have deep, self-defining commitments.

Freedom of Expression and Discussion. This principle reads: "In academic contexts, students and teachers have a right to express their views on any matter relevant to the curriculum." This requires viewpoint neutrality but not content neutrality. The First Amendment protects the right to speak about anything. Academic freedom, in contrast, is limited to the topic of the course and oriented toward academic argumentation.

Freedom of Inquiry. The principle reads: "Inquiry must not be suppressed by restricting access to particular authors, topics, or viewpoints or by hindering the formulation of objectionable conclusions." Inquiry is not just formal research. Students at all levels of education should, and often do, engage in inquiry. All such inquiry should be free.

Freedom from Indoctrination. This principle has two parts. First, "Educators and educational institutions must not require or coerce students to modify their beliefs or values. Efforts to convince students to modify their beliefs or values must be academically justifiable." This is consistent with the first principle in respecting freedoms of belief and identity.

The second part of the nonindoctrination principle reads: "Curriculum must be determined by teachers and other professionals on the basis of academic considerations. Suggested modifications of the curriculum should go through a process in place by the school or district." Here we see most clearly that academic freedom is not just freedom of speech. Students have a right to a curriculum that has been devised on academic grounds by teachers and other experts.

Equality, Privacy, and Due Process. This final principle could be seen as three: First, "All students and faculty have an equal right to academic freedom." Second, "Educators and educational institutions must refrain from academically unjustified inquiries into beliefs, values, interests, or affiliations of students and faculty." And finally, "Academic institutions must ensure that their formal and informal procedures provide sufficient due process to protect intellectual freedom."

Equality, privacy, and due process are basic human rights that complement other civil liberties, including free expression and religious liberty, and are crucial for protecting intellectual freedom in education. To the extent that equality, privacy, and due process protect intellectual freedom in education, they are part of the institutional support for academic freedom.

The bottom line: As NCTE has understood, academic freedom is intellectual freedom for all students, teachers, and researchers at all levels of education.