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Professors as liberators

January 22, 2006|Joan W. Scott | Joan W. Scott, Harold F. Linder professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study, serves on the Committee of Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Assn. of University Professors.

Supporters of the "Academic Bill of Rights" make three claims: that partisan politics affect faculty hiring, promotion and tenure; that liberal professors prevent the full exploration of ideas on campus and discriminate against conservatives; and that ideology plays a role in grading and in the

kinds of discussions permitted in classrooms. None of these claims is based on serious evidence.

Take the claim that politics is a factor in faculty hiring decisions. It rests on a study that shows college teachers are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican. But party affiliation says nothing about the way teachers teach. More important, it has nothing to do with scholarship and with what counts as a conservative or radical approach to teaching.

Hiring decisions have everything to do with scholarship, and here the tendency is toward pluralism. For example, English departments not only offer traditional courses on Shakespeare, the Victorians, the Romantics, novels, poetry, American literature and so forth, they also provide courses on such theoretical approaches as new criticism, formalism, poststructuralism, psychoanalysis and feminist criticism.

At some schools there are more formalists than new critics, or more literary historians than theorists. But that reflects English departments' marketing decisions, not their politics. At universities where English departments are predominantly poststructuralist, you'll find history departments emphasizing facts and chronological periods, political science faculties without a political theorist and economics departments that don't teach economic history (as they used to do).

In short, at most universities and colleges you'll find no prevailing ideology across departments but a mix of approaches. If you survey departments over time, you'll see changes that reflect new knowledge in disciplines as well as new styles of thinking. This history, and the mix it produces, has more do with markets than with ideology.

On the questions of whether campus environments are open and students are free to express themselves, inquiry after inquiry has shown that there is no problem. Most recently, the Republican chairman of a Pennsylvania legislative committee looking into these issues conceded as much to a reporter.

But proponents of the Academic Bill of Rights reason backward, contending that if "balance" or "neutrality" don't prevail in every classroom, students are denied their rights. They also insist that students' opinions must be counted as valid -- even if they are wrong.

It's one thing to insist that differences of opinion be respected. It's another to claim that all opinions have equal weight. For the most part, students lack the training and knowledge of their teachers. They are in college to learn. Final judgment on what counts as serious academic work and legitimate course content rests with faculty. For example, a student cannot legitimately claim that his academic freedom is being violated if creationism is not taught in his biology course, or if Holocaust deniers are not represented on his history syllabus.

The 1st Amendment treats faculty and students no differently in the larger field of ideas. But in the classroom, academic freedom rests on a notion of faculty expertise. Its values derive from the distinctive role of the professional scholar, a member of a self-regulating corporate body whose job is to certify expertise. Academic freedom pertains to scholars as professionals, not as individuals. It guarantees freedom of research, freedom to determine what's taught in the classroom and freedom from censorship for extramural expression. It carries responsibilities enforced by one's peers.

Students do not have this kind of academic freedom, and they ought not to be led to believe they do have it. Otherwise, we will face a nightmare of unjustified and costly litigation that will interfere with the university's mission.

The insistence on "balance" as a guarantor of student rights ignores another important aspect of education. Conflicts of values and ethics are integral to knowledge production. They inform it, trouble it, drive it. For example, scholars' commitments to ideas of justice are at the heart of many important investigations in political theory, philosophy and history. These ideas cannot be dismissed as irrelevant "opinion."

Students need to know their professors' values and commitments; they don't have to share them. But because such commitments cannot be separated from scholarship, there are abuse-monitoring mechanisms in academia that distinguish between responsible work and polemic, between teaching that aims to unsettle received opinion and teaching that seeks to indoctrinate. Universities have established procedures to adjudicate complaints of indoctrination, charges of unfair grading and other denials of student rights, and, for the most part, they work.

It's hard not to conclude that the demands for "balance" and "neutrality" by supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights are actually intended to stifle critical thinking of any kind by insisting that all ideas are of equal merit. Aside from the fact that this approach omits the role judgment must play in scholarly work, it cancels higher education's critical mission.

The best teachers are usually those whose commitment and point of view, thoroughly grounded in knowledge of a field, inspire students to think differently about the world by challenging the pieties and certainties they bring to college. It is precisely this kind of experience that opens students' minds, engages them in learning and sets them on paths they never knew they could take. Such critical thinking is the hallmark of American education -- an education designed to create thinking citizens for a free society. It is that education that is under attack by supporters of the Academic Bill of Rights.

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