Freedom in the Classroom

By Finkin, Matthew W.; Post, Robert C. et al. | Academe, September/October 2007 | Go to article overview

Freedom in the Classroom


Finkin, Matthew W., Post, Robert C., Nelson, Cary, Benjamin, Ernst, Combest, Eric, Academe


The report that follows, prepared by a subcommittee of the Association's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, was approved in June 2007 by the committee for publication. Comments are welcome and should be sent to the Washington office by ground mail or e-mail (academicfreedom@aaup.org).

I. Introduction

The 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure affirms that "teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject." This affirmation was meant to codify understandings of academic freedom commonly accepted in 1940. In recent years these understandings have become controversial. Private groups have sought to regulate classroom instruction, advocating the adoption of statutes that would prohibit teachers from challenging deeply held student beliefs or that would require professors to maintain "diversity" or "balance" in their teaching.1 Committee A has established this subcommittee to assess arguments made in support of recent legislative efforts in this area.

II. The Contemporary Criticism

Critics charge that the professoriate is abusing the classroom in four particular ways: (1) instructors "indoctrinate" rather than educate; (2) instructors fail fairly to present conflicting views on contentious subjects, thereby depriving students of educationally essential "diversity" or "balance"; (3) instructors are intolerant of students' religious, political, or socioeconomic views, thereby creating a hostile atmosphere inimical to learning; and (4) instructors persistently interject material, especially of a political or ideological character, irrelevant to the subject of instruction. We address each of these charges in turn.

A. "EDUCATION, NOT INDOCTRINATION!"

The caption is taken from a statement of the Committee for a Better North Carolina, which in 2003 condemned the assignment of Barbara Ehrenreich 's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America to incoming students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We agree, of course, that indoctrination is to be avoided, but the question is how education is to be distinguished from indoctrination.2

It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline. For example, it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so. Students must remain free to question generally accepted beliefs if they can do so, in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, using "a scholar's method and ... in a scholar's spirit." But professors of logic may insist that students accept the logical validity of the syllogism, and professors of astronomy may insist that students accept the proposition that the earth orbits around the sun, unless in either case students have good logical or astronomical grounds to differ.

This process is instruction, not indoctrination. As John Dewey pointed out a century ago, the methods by which these particular conclusions have been drawn have become largely uncontested.3 But, as he went on to observe, such consensus cannot be found in "political economy, sociology, historical interpretation," that is, in disciplines that "deal face to face with problems of life, not with technical theory." Of these, Dewey observed, "the right and duty of academic freedom are even greater than elsewhere."4 Dewey believed that it was an abuse of "freedom in the classroom" for an instructor to "promulgate as truth ideas or opinions which have not been tested," that is, which have not been accepted as true within a discipline.5

Dewey's point suggests that indoctrination occurs whenever an instructor insists that students accept as truth propositions that are in fact professionally contestable.

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