The Broken Bargain of Academic Freedom
Academic freedom is a wonder of civilization. In our costly modern systems of higher education, however, the independence of college teaching exists as part of a social bargain. Professors: you want to operate universities with collective self-governance and strong tenure protections? You want elected officials to send you tax dollars, prop up tuition through easy loans, and ignore the gains in your endowments – but also keep a deferential distance when it comes to the educational experience?
Expensive as this bargain may sound, those of us who are not professors have reasons to really consider it. Done right, subsidized academic independence can produce life-changing education and a more informed democracy.
But money plus status, autonomy, and influence over future workers and leaders, all adds up to great power that can be corrupted. So it’s only fair to ask for some responsibilities to pair with those freedoms – some collective self-discipline in exchange for looser oversight.
You don’t have to take my word for it. Just read the professorial vocation’s century-old principles, from the American Association of University Professors’ 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure (pp. 8-9). “There are no rights,” it said, “without corresponding duties.”
"Done right, subsidized academic independence can produce life-changing education and a more informed democracy."
Which duties, exactly? The AAUP named a few:
- Balance progress and conservation in your approach. Make the university “an intellectual experiment station, where new ideas may germinate and where their fruit, though still distasteful to the community as a whole, may be allowed to ripen until finally… it may become a part of the accepted intellectual food of the nation or of the world.” At the same time, “be the conservator of all genuine elements of value in the past thought and life of mankind which are not in the fashion of the moment. …[And] exercise a certain form of conservative influence. … to check the more hasty and unconsidered impulses of popular feeling.”
- Teach the best arguments on all sides of disputed topics. “[I]n giving instruction upon controversial matters… set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; [the professor] should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue… “[The professor] should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.”
- Be careful not to rush immature students to adopt any opinion, and especially your own. Don’t take “unfair advantage of the student’s immaturity by indoctrinating him with the teacher’s own opinions before the student has had an opportunity to fairly examine other opinions on the matters in question.” Help students “habituate looking not only patiently but methodically on both sides, before adopting any conclusion on controversial issues.”
All in, this is a pretty fair bargain. Professors receive wide latitude to run their own affairs as experts, in exchange for a certain professorial ethos of fair-mindedness, intellectual humility, and self-restraint. Many professors, including HxA members, would still take that deal today (and perhaps extend it to cover the admissions officers and campus administrators who are now so influential over campus norms).
"Here’s the catch: on the question of professors’ obligations to their students, non-professor normies like me – voters, taxpayers, families, alumni donors, and students themselves – still have a say."
But to state the obvious: many college faculty members and other college teachers embrace a sharply different sense of their calling. By this way of thinking, indoctrination is not the worry; inaction is. The good professor is a scholar-activist who understands that teaching “both sides” only serves the oppressor. The central “genuine elements of value” in the past should be the stirring memories of a vast list of injustices.
Here’s the catch: on the question of professors’ obligations to their students, non-professor normies like me – voters, taxpayers, families, alumni donors, and students themselves – still have a say. Our worldviews tend to be much more diverse than those of the faculty. Many of us would love to see colleges renew their professorial ethos, welcome debate again, and be as vigilant against vulgar indoctrination as the AAUP once was.
Where professors insist on redefining their obligations to the public, however, they may find that the deal is off. A bargain with society goes both ways.
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