Academic freedom matters

The current proposal is not about freedom but a political attempt to sanitize classroom discussion.

As a University professor who values and tries to nurture the ability of his students to think critically, I am alarmed by the radical right’s latest assault on our educational system. The “Academic Bill of Rights,” sponsored by Sen. Michele Bachmann, R-Stillwater, and Rep. Ray Vandeveer, R-Forest Lake, restricts what ideas professors can and cannot express in the classroom to those not considered political. In the Orwellian language of the far right, “Academic Bill of Rights” in fact reduces academic rights, in the same way that the “Clear Skies Initiative” reduces clean air by permitting increased pollution, and the “Healthy Forests Initiative” reduces our national forests by permitting increased logging.

Let’s be honest. This bill was not aimed at professors who express conservative ideas. This bill was written under the direction of a Washington-based network of conservative activists, and is part of a concerted plan in more than 20 states to limit the ability of professors to raise questions or issues that are inconsistent with political views of the White House and others on the far right. It in fact represents political censorship in our nation’s universities.

The bill’s proponents claim they are “protecting” students from undue influence or retribution by professors who hold ideas different than their own. This paternalistic argument doesn’t give much credit to the ability of students to think independently. The radical right claims that students are paying for an education, not to hear the opinions of their instructors. This misconception raises the fundamental question of what it means to get a university education. Without question, no professor, whatever their personal views, has the right to penalize a student for expressing their personal opinion, whether that opinion reflects the student’s political affiliation, gender, race or ethnicity, age, sexual orientation or religion. This is basic to the concept of academic freedom. However, professors do have the right and even the obligation to expose students to different ideas and opinions, including those that might challenge the students’ previously held beliefs. This is true in the sciences, the humanities, the social sciences and every other aspect of academic life. When I was an undergraduate student years ago, I took a political science seminar co-taught by conservative commentator George Will. Will expressed his strong opinions, and in doing so, challenged us to defend our positions and think critically beyond our world views. This is the essence of democracy and academic learning.

Receiving an education for success in the future is not just about getting a discrete set of technical skills, because in 10 years these skills are likely to be obsolete. Education for success in the future is about being an intelligent member of society who is able to adapt to the demands of an ever rapidly changing world. Education means learning how to problem solve and critically think “outside the box.” Education means being able to confront, evaluate and discuss ideas that may seem controversial across a whole variety of viewpoints. Those who have shaped the future have been able to question and challenge traditional perspectives, whether those perspectives were scientific, technical or political.

If those who want to control speech and thought in the university have their way, we might have a sanitized and mediocre classroom in which only ideas deemed acceptable by state ideologues are permitted. If we can legislate what ideas can be spoken of in the classroom, do we next legislate what books can be read if they are considered too “political” by the self-appointed state censors? What mechanism will be used to decide which opinions are now permitted and which are not? If professors are not allowed to express ideas that are considered “political,” will the next step be to restrict the ability of students themselves to express controversial ideas in the classroom?

Students should be alarmed and vigorously oppose this latest dangerous and heavy-handed attempt to stifle the open exchange of ideas in the classroom. Once they take away our academic freedom to express ideas, the very soul of this university and our educational system will be lost.

Alan R. Lifson is a University professor. Please send comments to [email protected]