Freedom to Teach

September 11, 2007

In the morning class, an undergraduate survey of American literature since the Civil War, I used The Beverly Hillbillies as an analogy, asked students for a short list of classic American film directors, and reviewed the disputed election of 1876. I had opened the class by writing on the board things like “Food and Drug Administration,” “Securities and Exchange Commission,” “unemployment insurance,” “Antitrust Act,” “Social Security,” and “the weekend." “These,” I explained, “are just some of the things we take for granted today -- and that didn’t exist when the action of The Rise of Silas Lapham opens in 1875.”

In the afternoon class, a senior seminar on recent American fiction, I spoke of the ubiquity of television -- in automobiles, convenience stores, elevators, and even refrigerators; I mentioned the Union Carbide chemical disaster in Bhopal; I explained the school of thought in communications studies, which links mass communications to totalitarianism; referenced the importance of Chuck Yeager in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff; and responded to a student’s remark about 9/11 by talking about aspects of Don DeLillo’s White Noise -- for that was our assignment -- that look either dated or prescient after the events of that day.

It was just an ordinary day in the classroom, in other words.

Every time college professors enter their classrooms -- any one of the thousands of classrooms on the thousands of campuses across the United States -- they know they are presiding over an extraordinary and potentially volatile space. Not all classrooms are charged with drama, of course; some contain students sitting in remote corners of the lecture hall, catching up on some much-needed sleep. But classrooms that depend on student discussion, commentary, and debate are quite another thing -- and seasoned teachers know what every inexperienced teacher dreads: Class discussion can go in any direction whatsoever. Students can pick up on a professor’s analogy -- for example, my slightly facetious comparison of Silas Lapham to the Beverly Hillbillies, or my more serious comparision between two characters’ discussion of American literary figures and our own sense of the “canon” of American directors -- and run with it anywhere they like; every day, they bring to the classroom their own analogies, obsessions, fully-formed arguments, and passing concerns, as well as the ideas that just popped into their heads a few minutes ago. And in response, professors can pick up on students’ responses and take them wherever on the syllabus -- or wherever in the world -- seems most pedagogically promising.

This is so common and ordinary a feature of college classrooms that it should need no defense. Quite literally, it should go without saying that college classrooms are places where students and professors can pursue illuminating analogies, develop trains of thought, play devil’s advocate, and make connections between past and present.

But, for reasons well known to readers of Inside Higher Ed, these things no longer go without saying. Conservative ideologues (whose names escape me at the moment) have tried, in recent years, to redefine “academic freedom” as a shield that protects conservative students from the opinions and convictions of their professors; they have introduced bills in state legislatures that would mandate “intellectual diversity” in college courses and curricula -- presumably to give conservative interpretations of The Rise of Silas Lapham and White Noise a fair hearing, or perhaps to require the assignment of texts more congenial to the conservative world view. And these initiatives have spawned a minor cottage industry of Student Protection Plans, as state legislators craft bills that would make it illegal for professors to challenge students’ cherished beliefs, or require professors to “respect” students’ determination to defend their opinions, however misinformed these might be.

In response, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure has drafted a 5500-word statement on “Freedom in the Classroom,” explaining just what it means that -- as the AAUP 1940 Statement of Principles says -- “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject.” The document will be published in the forthcoming issue of Academe, and it is -- in the humble opinion of this longtime AAUP member (who had no hand in its composition) -- as clear and as compelling a defense of academic freedom in the classroom as one could wish.

The statement takes up the right’s four most prominent complaints about professors’ classroom demeanor: “(1) instructors ‘indoctrinate’ rather than educate; (2) instructors fail fairly to present conflicting views on contentious subjects, thereby depriving students of educationally essential ‘diversity’ or ‘balance’; (3) instructors are intolerant of students’ religious, political, or socioeconomic views, thereby creating a hostile atmosphere inimical to learning; and (4) instructors persistently interject material, especially of a political or ideological character, irrelevant to the subject of instruction.” In its discussion of “indoctrination,” for example, the statement argues that: "It is not indoctrination for an economist to say to his students that in his view the creation of markets is the most effective means for promoting growth in underdeveloped nations, or for a biologist to assert his belief that evolution occurs through punctuated equilibriums rather than through continuous processes. 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."

This, too, should go without saying -- but because it doesn’t, conservative ideologues (whose names are just at the tip of my tongue) have been able to mount campaigns against individual professors and entire campuses based on the most specious of assumptions. In North Carolina, for instance, a group calling itself the Committee for a Better North Carolina complained bitterly that the University of North Carolina had assigned Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed to incoming students. Do such people really need to be told, in the words of the AAUP statement, that “it is fundamental error to assume that the assignment of teaching materials constitutes their endorsement”? Do we really need to explain in so many words that “classroom discussion of Nickel and Dimed in North Carolina could have been conducted in a spirit of critical evaluation, or in an effort to understand the book in the tradition of American muckraking, or in an effort to provoke students to ask deeper questions about their own ideas of poverty and class”? Yes and yes. In recent years, I’ve dealt with any number of people (none of them my students) who find my contemporary American literature syllabus objectionable, as if my assignment of writers like Ishmael Reed, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Richard Powers is incontrovertible evidence of liberal “bias.” And last year, a conservative organization (whose name I forget, but whose acronym is ACTA) released a shameful little pamphlet that used course descriptions as prima facie evidence of imbalance and indoctrination -- even in the case of a course entitled “American Masculinities,” which apparently set off ACTA’s alarms because there seemed something kind of queer about it.

The AAUP statement also addresses another common right-wing shell game. Lately I’ve been told by conservative critics of academe that they don’t want to restrict professors’ academic freedom in the classroom; they merely want to point out abuses of the classroom that masquerade as “academic freedom.” This is a dicey matter, because sometimes these critics have a point: there are indeed college professors who think that the principle of academic freedom covers everything they do and say in the classroom, regardless of whether it has any bearing on the course material. (Those professors need to read the AAUP statement, as well.) Certainly, no professor of analytic number theory has any business subjecting his students to a soliloquy about the war in Iraq, and no professor of introductory cosmology has any business fulminating about illegal immigrants. And no professor of anything has any business haranguing or intimidating students -- for any reason.

But here’s where the shell game comes in. The 1940 AAUP Statement of Principles notes that professors “should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.” In 1970, the AAUP clarified this guideline, explaining that “controversial” matter, in an of itself, is not a problem; rather, irrelevant material is the problem.

The intent of this statement is not to discourage what is “controversial.” Controversy is at the heart of the free academic inquiry which the entire statement is designed to foster. The passage serves to underscore the need for teachers to avoid persistently intruding material which has no relation to their subject.

Time and again, conservative critics of higher education have paid lip service to this principle, claiming that they object only to the persistent intrusion of material that is irrelevant to the course. But then -- sometimes in the same breath -- they go after entire disciplines, from women’s studies to ethnic studies to Middle Eastern studies, which they regard as illegitimate. Some critics, for example, are willing to countenance women’s studies so long as it does not involve “feminism” -- which, they think, crosses the line into advocacy and indoctrination. Yet it is not clear -- to anyone who takes education seriously, that is -- why the history of feminism (just to take one possible subject) would not be appropriate material for a women’s studies course.

Some critics make a superficially more careful case, arguing that the criterion of “relevance” should be determined by the course description (and studiously ignoring the fact that outfits like ACTA routinely attack course descriptions). But, as the AAUP statement demonstrates, this is an exercise in literalism so extreme as to amount to pettifogging: "The group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), for example, has advised students that '[y]our professor should not be making statements ... about George Bush, if the class is not on contemporary American presidents, presidential administrations or some similar subject.' This advice presupposes that the distinction between 'relevant' and 'irrelevant’ material is to be determined strictly by reference to the wording of a course description.... But if an instructor cannot stimulate discussion and encourage critical thought by drawing analogies or parallels, the vigor and vibrancy of classroom discussion will be stultified."

The course description is not a contract signed by professors and students; it is not an advertisement for a bill of goods or a demarcation of rigid intellectual boundaries. As the mundane examples of my own courses go to show, class discussion exceeds the bare minimum of the course description on a daily basis; I don’t indoctrinate, harangue, or intimidate my students, but I do introduce them to all kinds of relevant material that doesn’t appear in the course description or on the syllabus; and over the course of a day, a week, or a semester, I try to demonstrate how and why this material is relevant to the discussion. I am aided in this, I have to add, by bright, energetic students who bring their own analogies, obsessions, fully-formed arguments, and passing concerns to class, and who try to show me (and their peers) why these things are relevant to the course material.

I’m happy to say that so far, I haven’t had any timorous, excessively-literalist students who squeak in distress when I bring up television sitcoms or toxic chemical spills in class even though I haven’t mentioned them in my course description. And I’m also happy to say that so far, I haven’t had any timorous, excessively-literalist university administrators who’ve cautioned me against talking about presidential elections, regulatory agencies, or the events of 9/11 in class.

For everyone who has ever dealt with such students or such administrators, and for everyone who might, the AAUP “Freedom in the Classroom” statement is a timely and forceful document. No other organization in higher education could have issued it, because no other organization is capable of enunciating and defining the core principles of academic freedom. And though I do not expect that all academe’s critics will respond to “Freedom in the Classroom” warmly or in good faith, I do hope this statement will decisively clarify the meaning of academic freedom in teaching -- not only for teachers themselves, but for students, parents, administrators, trustees, alumni, and lawmakers.


Michael Bérubé is the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University.


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