Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Academic Freedom "at Risk?"

An article in today’s Inside Higher Education, “Speech Restriction Draw Fire,” details a plan at Northeastern Illinois University to require protesters to submit copies of fliers and signs to administrators two weeks before they can be displayed on campus (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/12/23/speech). Back in September we learned that the University of Illinois has sent an email to all employees (including faculty) that forbade displaying bumper stickers or political buttons on campus unless they were non-partisan (http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/09/24/buttons). A few weeks later the University of Austin was forced to rescind an order that no posters be displayed in students’ dorm windows, including campaign posters, after both Obama and McCain supporters with the help of the ACLU challenged the rule. All of this comes on the heels of David Horowitz’s continuing Academic Bill of Rights campaign to protect students from “liberal” and “radical” professors who are attacking our students with their sinister ideas.

These are just a few recent examples of attempts to undermine the academic freedom that we have fought so hard for over the years. We could add the various tenure decisions that have been questioned, the professors who have been reprimanded or fired for having unpopular or controversial ideas, the famous UCLA Dirty Thirty list, and countless other examples of schools that have fallen prey to the right-wing plan to clean our schools of “subversive,” read divergent or counterhegemonic, ideas.

When did ideas become so dangerous? This has certainly always been the case to those in power. From our earliest days, the control of information stands at the forefront of the war to control what we see, hear and think. As a World Bank draft report (2003) argued, “unions, especially teachers union, are one of the greatest threats to global prosperity.” This is the new conventional wisdom – teachers and, of course, teachers unions, undermine the central tenants of neoliberalism by getting people to, gulp, think about the world order and its logic and fairness. The progenitors of official knowledge want to delimit the available voices in the public sphere and continuously attack the last bastion of free thought and serious inquiry.

Faculty have generally challenged this call for censorship, as well as the false call for objectivity and neutrality. The minor successes of David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, however, show the ways in which colleges and universities have increasingly embraced the idea that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from radical teachers and their attempts to proselytize students. The situation in k-12 public schools is of course more tenuous, as calls for neutrality and politics-free curriculum seem to increasingly be the rule. From NCLB, Adoption Plans and scripted curriculum to positivism’s stronghold on educational research, we move closer and closer to the notion that education and knowledge are purely instrumental – a means toward the end of training, profits and a compliant, complacent workforce.

An interesting recent article from the New York Times, however, suggests that the power of professors to change their students’ minds is quite limited: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/03/books/03infl.html?_r=1&ei=5070&emc=eta1&pagewanted=print. The article cites three recent studies that find that professors have virtually no influence on the political ideas of their students. Parents, family and, to a lesser extent friends, are the major influence on politics ideas – particularly among the young. While schools once caused many students to rethink their ideas, this appears to be the case less and less (while many of my own student’s claim I awaken them to new ideas, and some do seem to really question their preconceived notions, few actually seem to change their general views on race, class, power, language, etc.) Why? I would argue that it has a lot to do with the stifling of real debate, the positivistic meme that has overtaken American scholarship and the popular idea that knowledge can even be neutral or apolitical.

Decades of challenges to this idea from history, anthropology, linguistics and political and social theory in general have appeared to go largely unheeded (at least outside the Ivory Tower). In my view, people tend to relate knowledge to their own experiences and the ideas that surround them throughout civil society. Schools are one of the few places where these questions are asked in a serious, critical manner (directive learning). And yet these spaces have been attacked so effectively in recent years that one wonders if the closing of the American mind is in fact inuring.

I believe our first responsibility as teachers, professors and educators at all levels is to open our student’s minds to the richness of knowledge and ideas. We must challenge our students to question not only conventional wisdom but their own deeply held beliefs – no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. This does not mean proselytizing them or making them think like us, it means giving them the tools to critically reflect on their own experiences and their relationship to the broader social, economic and political worlds in which they reside. If schools fail to provide this most basic aspect of learning, they do a disservice not only to students but society at large. As Dewey, Jefferson and Freire among countless others have argued, democracy depends on an educated, informed populace, with the freedom to explore divergent perspectives. I think we as professors should take this as a central charge and attack all efforts to undermine our freedom to explore knowledge in all its richness and diversity. This includes attacking the popular notion that knowledge is implicitly dangerous and that we must protect students from it.

-- Richard Van Heertum

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