Magazine article Social Studies Review

Malcolm Mitchell: A Leader in Academic Freedom

Magazine article Social Studies Review

Malcolm Mitchell: A Leader in Academic Freedom

Article excerpt

It was a gray day, not really raining, not really cold, just gray. As I approached the house, set among the wooded hills of the peninsula, I could see him framed in the doorway. Navy sweater, navy baseball cap, navy lap robe covering his legs as he sat in his wheelchair - a picture in black and white. "Did you have any trouble finding the house?" That deep melodious voice and smile was in direct contrast to the gray of the day.

After the usual exchange of greetings, we settled in his den - a room filled with bookcases and a writing desk. I lowered my papers onto an end table as I was handed six yellowed booklets on academic freedom. "You asked about my interest in academic freedom so I gathered some materials," he said. The first was Fair Play in Politics, a 1960s booklet lamenting current campaign practices and presenting a Code of Fair Campaign Practices. In looking over that issue, it seemed that nothing has changed in campaign practices from 1960 to 2004 in spite of the dozens of laws passed by the legislature. The media has changed - colored TV, email ads, automatic phone messages in addition to the usual newspapers and mail, but the practices remain the same.

Next were two booklets on academic freedom published by NCSS in the 1980s. I quote from one of them:

Steps to Follow When Academic Freedom Is Threatened

It is wise, of course, to know the limits on teacher academic freedom within the school before a controversy arises. Social studies teachers are urged to check their school board policies, curriculum guides, and collective bargaining contracts for mention of academic freedom. If what you learn seems contrary to what you believe to be the law, you have a difficult decision to make. You can follow school procedures, choosing not to endanger your position as a teacher. You can seek to have school policies changed. Or you can engage in the questioned activity, trusting that if a challenge arises, you will be able to defend your action successfully. Choose carefully, for once a decision is made you may have no opportunity to turn back. (Hirsh & Kemerer, Academic Freedom: Crisis and Prevention, Washington DC, National Council for Social Studies, 1984)

With the present emphasis on Standards, Testing, and No Child Left Behind, the old issues of academic freedom seem far away. Nevertheless, individual professional rights are restricted today by the push for standardization. The words, Academic Freedom, belong to another era, but the concept of individual professional rights demands vigilance and concern.

Finally, there were two sources discussing attacks on books. In 1968, The California Social Science Review; published an article by Dorman Commons, Former President of the State Board of Education, describing how the State Legislature and individual groups attacked the approved Grade 8 history textbook, Land of the Free. Land of the Free was attacked because "the book plays down patriotism and plays up the United Nations and the role of minority groups to the detriment of the white majority." There was no general consensus on what should be taught in US history, even though in 1965 the State Legislature had passed a bill mandating the study by all students of the role and contributions of Blacks and other ethnic groups. This textbook issue reminds one of the conflicts of the 1960s and the sharp divisions between the often older, traditional culture and the hippie, counter-culture. Land of the Free was required by law to be used in California schools, yet some districts let the book remain in storage and continued to use a more traditional text because of parent and public opposition to the changes.

The second source was a booklet titled Attacks on the Freedom to Learn: 1985-86. The booklet listed some 100 censorship incidents as samples of what was occurring. It also noted that this was a 35% increase in censorship incidents, and that almost 40% of the attacks resulted in the removal of books or educational material. …

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