Classroom Rights and Responsibilities

[Cross-posted from Free Exchange on Campus]

Way back in the 1970s, I heard an ad on the radio that got me so annoyed that I still remember it. The tag line was, “Your children have a right to have whales in their world.” It wasn’t the aim of the ad that bothered me—I was soon to be raising money that would be given to Greenpeace and other “save the whale” organizations myself—but the word “right.”

We hear similar things today, of course, ads telling us we “deserve” this or that. They can make the naïve believe that, simply because of who they are, certain things ought to happen to them or come to them. And without taking on responsibility.

You ask, what’s this got to do with the “free exchange of ideas”? Simply this: in all the discussion of student rights generated by David Horowitz and his Students for Academic Freedom, we tend to forget to ask just why students have these rights—or why they deserve them—or what they need to bring to the classroom in the way of responsibilities entwined with their rights.

Only a few rights can really be posited as inalienable—that is, existing beyond a compact. We Americans find these readily in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

The question, then, for the Declaration, lies in securing rights, not in establishing them. In most other instances, rights are based on agreement—on negotiation. Land ownership, for example, exists only because the community has decided that individual custodianship of land is in its best interest—and it has instituted an “agreement” with the individual that continued ownership is dependent on the meeting of certain responsibilities—payment of taxes, for one. The community, generally, also reserves for itself the right of eminent domain, meaning it can override individual rights for what has been decided is a greater common good.

When I was a college student (almost 40 years ago), student rights had not been established—not well, at least. Colleges believed that they must act “in loco parentis,” and they certainly treated students like children, setting curfew hours, banning items and visitors from dormitories, and much more. In classrooms, the professors could act with impunity; the power was all on their side. That changed, particularly in the wake of the Kent State killings, when students began to force themselves onto the governance apparati of their universities. Regulations tumbled, grievance procedures appeared, and the traditional concept of a ‘teacher-centered’ classroom was severely dented. Professors, now bound (to a certain extent) by student evaluations, had to find new ways of insuring order in their classrooms, ways that could not be construed as insulting or limiting students.

Some small amount of chaos ensued (or not so small, depending on your perspective), eventually leading to a certain reassertion of control by the institutions. The return to a 21-year-old drinking age, though legislative and not institutional, was one of the results of the desire to reestablish control over campuses. Though professors still tried to cloak their clout in “community of learners” rhetoric, they have used the increasing importance of grades as a means for reasserting their dominance in the classroom.

One right that students did not gain—and do not have now—is that of academic freedom. Though students are affected by academic freedom, it is not their right, for that right arises through a compact between universities and their faculties.

But what rights do students have? Or should have?

One expectation that students have—and one that might be expressed as a right—is professional competence on the parts of their instructors. This does bear on the compact of academic freedom, for essential to academic freedom is the idea that faculties be self-governing, that decisions about hiring and retention, about classroom and research duties, and about other professional responsibilities come from themselves and not from some outside force. The student expects that the faculty will take this seriously and not turn itself into something of an old-fashioned guild dedicated to protection of the insider against any and all external questioning as, to some minds, was happening in defense of Ward Churchill, formerly of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Whatever the value of defenses of Churchill on free-speech grounds, the fact that he lacked the competencies for college classroom responsibilities certainly became clear as his scholarly activities were investigated. The faculty that hired and promoted him had failed to do its job—and Churchill’s students were poorly served (that they may have liked him is irrelevant in this context), their expectation that the faculty insures competence unmet.

The self-governance that failed in the Churchill case has serious implications on the rights and expectations of students and is expressed, through the 1915 AAUP “Declaration on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure” as a:

freedom to perform honestly and according to their own consciences the distinctive and important function which the nature of the profession lays upon them.

That function is to deal at first hand, after prolonged and specialized technical training, with the sources of knowledge; and to impart the results of their own and of their fellow-specialists’ investigation and reflection, both to students and to the general public, without fear or favor. The proper discharge of this function requires (among other things) that the university teacher shall be exempt from any pecuniary motive or inducement to hold, or to express, any conclusion which is not the genuine and uncolored product of his own study or that of fellow-specialists. Indeed, the proper fulfillment of the work of the professoriate requires that our universities shall be so free that no fair-minded person shall find any excuse for even a suspicion that the utterances of university teachers are shaped or restricted by the judgment, not of professional scholars, but of inexpert and possibly not wholly disinterested persons outside of their ranks.

Perhaps we amongst the faculty should be grateful that “fair-minded” modifies “person” in that passage, and that it specifically warns against outside influence. Be that as it may, the implication here is that students should be able to expect a certain level of competence from their teachers.

If this is a student right, it carries with it a certain responsibility. And that is to ‘suspend disbelief’ at least for the duration of the semester in order that all in the class can learn from the professor without the distraction of continual contentious debate. After all, the faculty has determined (supposedly) the competence of the instructor—and it is not the place of the student to second guess the faculty about a professor—not, at least, within the context of a particular on-going class. That is, it is the responsibility of the student to assume that the professor just may know what she or he is doing in the classroom, and to reserve judgment until after the end of the semester—or drop the class. Later, of course, or in a forum outside of the classroom, the student certainly should voice her or his concerns.

For exercising restraint in the classroom doesn’t mean that the student needs to give up the right to disagree—far from it. It simply means that the student must not act to impede the plan of the class. There are only fifteen weeks in a semester, and certain tasks do need fulfilling in that time. Out of respect for fellow students and for the faculty, no individual student should try to impede the necessary progress because she or he disagrees with the professors contentions. This isn’t necessarily fair, but it is fairly necessary.

What we have here is, in a way, an equivalence to eminent domain. That is, there is a right to one’s own opinion or belief, just as there is a right to ownership, but if it gets in the way of the greater needs of class or community, that right can be set aside. The responsible thing to do is to accept that or to fight it through establish routes (grievance procedures; the courts) rather than through disruption.

Though our media work hard to convince us otherwise, there are very few rights that do not come with responsibility. This is just as true for faculty, who need to make sure that loyalty to individual faculty members doesn’t supersede responsibility to the profession and to academic freedom, as it is to the student, who must take responsibility for classroom behavior in exchange for the right to both learn and express dissent.