Reframing the Debate About What Professors Say

AAUP releases principles to defend rights of faculty members against those calling for anti-indoctrination or balancing measures.
September 11, 2007

From a legislative perspective, the movement for the "Academic Bill of Rights" hasn't led to the enactments of bills that many professors feared. Hearings have been held, and bills introduced -- and some have even advanced. But the movement hasn't produced new laws. That's not to say, though, that it hasn't had an impact. Plenty of legislators, talk radio hosts, bloggers and others have picked up the arguments put forth by David Horowitz and other proponents of the measure -- namely that many professors are not only liberal, but are committed to indoctrinating students and punishing those who don't accept their views.

With the public debate having been influenced more than the law, the American Association of University Professors is today trying to reframe the debate. It is releasing today a new statement on "Freedom in the Classroom," taking on arguments about indoctrination, the need for measurable "balance" in courses, and the idea that professors need to stay close to an agreed upon syllabus and avoid political references unless directly and clearly related to course content.

"We want to help stiffen the spine of the professoriate," said Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a member of the committee that drafted the new statement. "This is really, more than anything else, a statement directed at the higher education community," said Nelson, who added that he worried that too many professors are censoring themselves because they don't want to find themselves answering questions about why they made some political reference or assigned a certain book and not another.

Starting this week, the AAUP will be e-mailing the statement to 350,000 American academics, and similar e-mail campaigns will take place in Canada (a French translation has been provided for those Quebec) and possibly elsewhere. "We want to give faculty members arguments that are really clear and that they can use with administrations," Nelson said. (A podcast interview from this summer features Nelson discussing his goals for the statement.)

The statement says that answering the charges of widespread abuse of classroom discussions is vital to preventing the kind of legislation and regulation academics fear. "Modern critics of the university seek to impose on university classrooms mandatory and ill-conceived standards of 'balance,' 'diversity,' and 'respect.' We ought to learn from history that the vitality of institutions of higher learning has been damaged far more by efforts to correct abuses of freedom than by those alleged abuses," the statement says. "We ought to learn from history that education cannot possibly thrive in an atmosphere of state-encouraged suspicion and surveillance."

Not surprisingly, the statement isn't winning over Horowitz. While he said in an interview that he "agrees in principle" with many of the ideas in the statement about academic freedom, he believes that the document is "evasive" and doesn't reflect what he considers widespread problems in the classroom. "This is no contribution," he said.

The AAUP statement goes through four beliefs espoused by critics of academe and seeks to provide a philosophical framework for answering each one.

Indoctrination. A common criticism of Horowitz and others -- and the subject of a new film much hailed by critics of higher education -- is that many professors cross the line from teaching into indoctrination, trying not so much to challenge as to convert their students. Here the AAUP noted risks with defining indoctrination in ways that could prevent professors from teaching what students need to learn -- and in many cases this would involve undisputed facts.

"It is not indoctrination for professors to expect students to comprehend ideas and apply knowledge that is accepted as true within a relevant discipline. For example, it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so," the report says.

Even in areas where there is not as much consensus among experts as is the case with evolution, professors should not be punished or criticized for having strong points of view, the report says. "Indoctrination occurs only when instructors dogmatically insist on the truth of such propositions by refusing to accord their students the opportunity to contest them. Vigorously to assert a proposition or a viewpoint, however controversial, is to engage in argumentation and discussion -- an engagement that lies at the core of academic freedom. Such engagement is essential if students are to acquire skills of critical independence. The essence of higher education does not lie in the passive transmission of knowledge but in the inculcation of a mature independence of mind."

Balance. Another common criticism is that good professors always have clearly visible "balance" between perspectives in their courses. On this issue, the AAUP statement notes that there are responsibilities professors have in the classroom to cover certain material, whether dictated by curricular committees or by disciplinary standards. "If a professor of molecular biology has an idiosyncratic theory that AIDS is not caused by a retrovirus, professional standards may require that the dominant contrary perspective be presented. Understood in this way, the ideal of balance does not depend on a generic notion of neutrality, but instead on how particular ideas are embedded in specific disciplines," the report says.

But the AAUP goes on to suggest that emphasis on balance suggests falsely that there is always some neutral ideal about which there are clearly opposing sides that every student needs to understand. Too much counting for balance would remove the ability of professors to construct good courses, the statement warns. It notes that there is "a large universe of facts, theories, and models that are arguably relevant to a subject of instruction but that need not be taught. Assessments of George Eliot's novel Daniel Deronda might be relevant to a course on her Middlemarch, but it is not a dereliction of professional standards to fail to discuss Daniel Deronda in class. What facts, theories, and models an instructor chooses to bring into the classroom depends upon the instructor's sense of pedagogical dynamics and purpose."

Hostility. Critics of higher education say that too many professors are rude or vindictive to students who do not agree with their political views. Here the AAUP stated, as it has previously, that academic freedom should not be viewed as a license to mistreat students. "An instructor may not harass a student nor act on an invidiously discriminatory ground toward a student, in class or elsewhere," the statement says. "It is a breach of professional ethics for an instructor to hold a student up to obloquy or ridicule in class for advancing an idea grounded in religion, whether it is creationism or the geocentric theory of the solar system. It would be equally improper for an instructor to hold a student up to obloquy or ridicule for an idea grounded in politics, or anything else."

However, the statement warns of the danger of trying to protect students from professors' ideas, which may well differ significantly from those a student grew up with. "It is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced. Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students," the statement says.

Irrelevant politics. Finally, a criticism is that professors fill their lectures with political commentary that has nothing to do with the course. Here the AAUP again notes the responsibilities professors have to cover material in appropriate ways, and questions just how widespread this problem is. More serious, the AAUP suggests, is the danger of so regulating what professors say that they can't make logical connections for students between course content and whatever students may relate to.

"Might not a teacher of nineteenth-century American literature, taking up Moby Dick, a subject having nothing to do with the presidency, ask the class to consider whether any parallel between President George W. Bush and Captain Ahab could be pursued for insight into Melville's novel?" the statement asks. "Might not an instructor of classical philosophy, teaching Aristotle's views of moral virtue, present President Bill Clinton's conduct as a case study for student discussion? Might not a teacher of ancient history ask the class to consider the possibility of parallels between the Roman occupation of western Mesopotamia and the United States' experience in that part of the world two millennia later?"

Horowitz, asked for his thoughts on all of this, said that the report ignores "the most serious problem in our universities today, which is persistent, institutionally supported indoctrination." He said, for example, that women's studies as a discipline is entirely focused on the social construction of gender, and that students with opposing views would be ostracized and that opposing ideas would not get considered.

In cases like this, he said, it is legitimate and necessary to inquire about the curriculum and to push for the inclusion of books or materials with alternate perspectives. He said that he continues to meet students who tell him of being forced to watch irrelevant but politically charged films in class or tell him of courses where books are all of one ideology. "All a kid wants is another book assigned," he said.

Horowitz said he was especially disappointed in the AAUP's statement because he had volunteered to meet with those drafting it, in the interest of possibly coming up with something he could have endorsed. The AAUP's unwillingness to meet with him on the statement, he said, suggested that the association was interested in "confrontation, not dialogue."

Nelson said that while he appreciated the offer, "our aim was to produce a statement of the AAUP position, not seek national consensus." When an AAUP statement has been released -- and, perhaps in the future, amended, based on responses -- the association sometimes will use it "as a basis for further dialogue with constituencies other than faculty and see if a consensus can be reached." Regardless, Nelson said he would be "more than happy to continue my dialogue with David on that basis."


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