Academic Freedom: Naïve and Circumscribed

John Friedl, who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in the departments of Political Science, Public Administration and Nonprofit Management, and Accounting and Finance, has written an article for David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine in which he argues for “teaching the subject matter using appropriate viewpoint-neutral techniques.” I don’t like calling belief in such a possibility naïve, but it is no more possible in actual practice than is the “objectivity” that many journalists aspire to.

Of course, our beliefs, religious, political, or of any other sort, influence everything we do. To pretend otherwise is either disingenuous or naïve, and I would hate to think that Friedl has some hidden agenda, so I am left to see him as something of a naïf. For a century, we have been grappling with the possibility of “objectivity,” and discussions have always proved inconclusive. The problem comes down to ontology, ultimately to belief, an unacceptable basis for “objectivity.” “Objectivity” requires “truth.” Otherwise, “relativity” reigns. Yet “truth” isn’t available to us as an absolute, only as an unprovable assumption. Therefore, “objectivity,” though it may be an admirable goal, is something that, even if it can be approached, can never be reached—for the truth behind it can never be proven absolute.

Be that as it may, there are other—and more practical—problems with Friedl’s article, and with his vision of “academic freedom.”

[A side note: oddly enough, though he opposes David Horowitz’s attempt to bring his “Academic Bill of Rights” into law, Friedl accepts Horowitz’s argument that

no legislation connected with his “Academic Bill of Rights” is binding (they are only resolutions about the importance of intellectual diversity), and that he does “not believe legislatures are suited to fixing the academic problems that need to be addressed. Only the university itself can do this.”

As he is a lawyer as well as an academic, one would think this contention would lead Friedl to ask why, then, Horowitz wants laws endorsing that “Academic Bill of Rights.” One does not advocate for laws that are advisory in nature.]

What concerns me most about Friedl’s article are assertions like this:

whatever one’s position might be on an issue, be it political, social, religious, or any other topic, a professor should not use the forum of a captive audience in a classroom as an opportunity to express his or her views with the intention of convincing students of the correctness of that position. Only in the rare instance when the subject of the course is clearly appropriate for the injection of personal beliefs, and the students are adequately informed in advance, may the professor be considered within the bounds of academic freedom to express his or her own viewpoints, but even then there should be appropriate opportunity and respect for contrary views of others in the class.

Friedl, here, elides the core problems of “academic freedom” through his “should not/may/should” structure.

His first statement, that a professor “should not” use the classroom to indoctrinate is a bit of a red herring, a false opposition to the “may” and “should” of the next sentence. Of course no professor should see his or her position as providing an opportunity for brainwashing. But that’s not the point, and is irrelevant to any discussion of “academic freedom” anyway.

I should be clear: Friedl is not writing of “academic freedom” in its older (yet still active) sense of the freedom to conduct research in unpopular areas or to publish unpopular views. He is restricting himself to “academic freedom” in the classroom. Here, the professor is given the freedom to reach the competencies that define the course in a manner consistent with that professor’s sense of the field of endeavor. The American university system provides a great deal of latitude here, but also has safeguards in place. Professors go through a long process of vetting, one that begins in graduate school, and do not get far along in the tenure process without gaining the confidence of their colleagues. Also, students are encouraged (in fact, they are forced) to take only a limited number of courses from any one professor. Most college students will take classes from more than thirty professors in their four years. It would be very hard for any one of them to successfully indoctrinate his or her students—especially if every other professor were attempting to do the same.

For sake of space, I’m leaving aside the argument that Horowitz makes, that the vast majority of professors believe in the same thing. His argument, based in part on the fact that there are far more liberals in our universities than conservatives (at least amongst Liberal Arts faculties), holds no water with anyone who has any understanding at all of the liberal mindset. As Friedl doesn’t address this issue, I won’t either.

Where Freidl’s argument in the passage above breaks down is in the use of “clearly appropriate.” Who is to make that determination? Any attempt to establish such a line will necessitate an abrogation of “academic freedom.” Friedl himself is laying down the law—a law that itself limits a freedom in a way that makes that freedom meaningless.

I teach writing. At the heart of my pedagogy is the concept that successful writing is predicated by an understanding that one is participating in a conversation. To converse, one must develop a clear understanding of the correspondent—and must have a topic of sufficient complexity and interest for sustained discussion. For this reason (the impossibility of a true “apolitical” stance notwithstanding), I need for my students to come to an understanding of me as a being with certain political (and even religious) leanings so that they can be addressing an audience and not a blank slate (blank slates can’t argue back, allowing students to develop their skills). Also, I need to be able to develop topics that engage my students. If I am limited to “non-controversial” topics, my students will be bored, and I will not be able to meet my goals of improving their writing—and thinking—skills. If someone from outside says that my methodology is inappropriate, that I must change my ways and develop a pedagogy that avoids political and religious controversies, my “academic freedom” is abridged.

Friedl’s “should” at the end precedes another of those truisms that are rarely challenged—but that should be. Friedl wants “appropriate opportunity and respect for contrary views of others in the class.” That can lead to chaos in the classroom, for it makes all views equal—and they just aren’t. It is not the views themselves that should be respected, anyway, but a willingness to study them and to learn to defend them. I am not going to accept hatred of gays in my classroom—I will ask anyone expressing such a view to consider it, study it, and defend it, but I will not accept it as legitimate. It is my responsibility as a teacher try to get my students to examine their beliefs—not to change them, but to understand them and to see them in relation to the beliefs—and beings—of others. Certainly, my students will not respect me and my beliefs if I uphold such a naïve (again) relativism as a principle of the classroom.

Towards the end of his article, Friedl does try a little naïve relativism in defense of his argument for limiting information as a part of “academic freedom”:

Regardless of our place on the liberal-conservative continuum, we should at least agree that there is very little that can pass as “truth” in the realm of politics or religion. The role of the instructor should be, in my view, to present ideas and concepts for students to debate, discuss, criticize and ultimately to form their own opinions. It should not be to present the “truth” for the students to absorb uncritically.

My father, a professor of psychology, had a demonstration that shows the vacuity of this one of Friedl’s “shoulds”: he would ask a student to go to the blackboard and ask her or him to draw a line a meter long. The puzzled student would draw a line. My father would look at it, shake his head, and tell them to practice some more—until they got it right. In face of their consternation, he would relent, telling them to make the line a little longer—no, not that much longer. There! That’s about it. His point was that one learns little even by practicing—without guidance. And a teacher, to be effective, can’t just toss a ball onto the court and then act as referee. For learning to take place, there has to be coaching, too.

It does not follow that, because there is no “truth,” we have to approach our classrooms without opinions or should hide the ones we do have. For one thing, such a thing is impossible. Our students are not stupid: they can see our beliefs, even when we hide them (sometimes they are wrong, as in an example Friedl gives, but that is just as bad).

Friedl ends his piece by writing:

The discussion over academic standards and academic freedom in the classroom should not be framed in terms of liberal, or even radical, indoctrination of students. Rather, it should be a question of teaching the subject matter using appropriate viewpoint-neutral techniques. Arguments over whether more liberal than conservative professors are “guilty” of injecting their personal views into their classroom instruction detract from the more important issue on which both liberals and conservatives can find common ground – the need to raise academic standards and improve the quality of education by challenging students to think critically and introspectively, to shop freely in the marketplace of ideas, and to develop their personal philosophy with guidance from those whom they respect and trust.

Friedl prefaces his point here with something that has never been a real question in American classrooms (though it is, in Horowitz’s imagination—but he is someone who hasn’t been inside a classroom in years), and that is “indoctrination.” No one in American education argues in favor of indoctrination; no serious student of academia sees the “framing” of issues in terms of indoctrination. The rest of the passage is composed of platitudes, none of which has any real relevance to teaching.

We cannot challenge “students to think critically and introspectively” without demonstrating that we do so ourselves. We cannot be guides our students “respect and trust” when we hide our own beliefs from them.

We can only teach our students well if we are honest and open with them, inviting them into the very real debates we participate in. Freezing them out, especially through a view of “academic freedom” that paradoxically restricts in the name of freedom, patronizes the students, setting up a barrier that makes it much more difficult than need be to develop a real and effective rapport with our students. Ultimately, what Friedl is asking is that we be dishonest in the name of academic freedom.

And I, for one, can’t countenance that.

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