Perhaps you’ve already seen the new(ish) AAUP report Freedom in the Classroom, or Michael Bérubé’s commentary on it at Inside Higher Ed yesterday. The report is such a clear statement of what a professor’s freedom in the classroom amounts to and, more importantly, why that freedom is essential if we are to accomplish the task of educating college students, that everyone who cares at all about higher education ought to read it.
Some of the highlights, with my commentary:
On concerns that professors “indoctrinate” rather than educate:
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. Students must remain free to question generally accepted beliefs if they can do so, in the words of the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure, using “a scholar’s method and . . . in a scholar’s spirit.” But professors of logic may insist that students accept the logical validity of the syllogism, and professors of astronomy may insist that students accept the proposition that the earth orbits around the sun, unless in either case students have good logical or astronomical grounds to differ.
To the extent that we professorial types teach classes with subjects, it is part of our job to convey the content of those subjects, and the patterns of reasoning used by those in our discipline to understand and explain. A chemistry class that left its students innocent of the chemical view of matter and its combination and transformation wouldn’t be much of a chemistry class. Conveying the chemical worldview to students, and asking that they demonstrate some facility in using it on problem sets and exams, is not indoctrination. Compelling students at gunpoint to become chemists might be, but I have yet to see that pedagogical approach in action.
Instructors indoctrinate when they teach particular propositions as dogmatically true. It is not indoctrination when, as a result of their research and study, instructors assert to their students that in their view particular propositions are true, even if these propositions are controversial within a discipline. 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 her 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. 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.
College-level courses shouldn’t be just about transmitting knowledge; they should also convey something about how that knowledge was produced. We’re not trying to pour facts into skulls (or snap knowledge-cartridges into ports) but rather to prepare our students for the thinking they will want and need to do on their own, in the world, when they are no longer our students. I’ve noted before that this is the sort of thing that is more robust than a particular specialized set of skill (that may become obsolete if the market takes an unexpected term). As well, learning how to think critically, how to frame good questions, and how to ask for and evaluate evidence for claims ought to make you less susceptible to indoctrination.
Honest to goodness, if college professors were brainwashing armies of college students, don’t you think education funding would be in better shape?
On concerns that college professors fail to provide appropriate “balance” in their courses:
To make a valid charge that instruction lacks balance is essentially to charge that the instructor fails to cover material that, under the pertinent standards of a discipline, is essential. There may be facts, theories, and models, particularly in the sciences, that are so intrinsically intertwined with the current state of a discipline that it would be unprofessional to slight or ignore them. One cannot now teach biology without reference to evolution; one cannot teach physical geology without reference to plate tectonics; one cannot teach particle physics without reference to quantum theory. There is, however, 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.
To urge that instruction be “balanced” is to urge that an instructor’s discretion about what to teach be restricted. But the nature of this proposed restriction, when carefully considered, is fatally ambiguous. Stated most abstractly, the charge of lack of balance evokes a seeming ideal of neutrality. The notion appears to be that an instructor should impartially engage all potentially relevant points of view. But this ideal is chimerical. No coherent principle of neutrality would require an instructor in a class on constitutional democracy to offer equal time to “competing” visions of communist totalitarianism or Nazi fascism. There is always a potentially infinite number of competing perspectives that can arguably be deemed relevant to an instructor’s subject or perspective, whatever that subject or perspective might be. It follows that the very idea of balance and neutrality, stated in the abstract, is close to incoherent.
We have 15 week semesters. You can’t fit everything into 30 class meeting. Designing a good course means selecting a good range of models or views or phenomena worth examining to convey the critical skills and patterns of thought you’re trying to convey. Unless you want students to spend a lifetime (and then some) in class, we have to leave stuff out.
The ideal of balance makes sense only in light of an instructor’s obligation to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented. 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. This is a coherent idea of balance, and it suggests that balance is not a principle that can be invoked in the abstract but is instead a standard whose content must be determined within a specific field of relevant disciplinary knowledge.
One of the things we hope to convey to our students is that disciplines involve ongoing discussions (or battles, depending on your point of view) over what is known, how well it’s grounded, and what the most promising ways to build more knowledge in that discipline will be. This means that minority opinions are perfectly appropriate fodder for instruction, but they only do the pedagogical job when presented in the context of the majority view and the reasons practitioners of the discipline offer for preferring one view over the others.
Again, the goal is not to tell students what to think so much as to give them the resources and the practice to figure out how to think.
On the charge that college classrooms are a hostile environment for students who don’t share the political or religious views of their professors:
[T]he current application of the idea of a “hostile learning environment” to the pedagogical context of higher education presupposes much more than blatant disrespect or harassment. It assumes that students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged. This assumption contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspectives, whatever those might be. 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. This would create a classroom environment inimical to the free and vigorous exchange of ideas necessary for teaching and learning in higher education.
Disrespect toward anyone in the college classroom is a bad thing. But the examination of ideas, beliefs, and what we take to be reliable knowledge, is at the core of what higher education is about. If we can’t examine what we think, and the grounds on which we think it, how do we know if what we think is any good? How are we in a position to evaluate the new claims people want us to buy, whether they bear on who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy?
Examining what’s in your head can be scary business, there’s no denying that. But living in the real world as a grown up who has never cultivated that ability is even scarier.
On claims that professors routinely introduce “irrelevant” material into their instruction (possibly as part of their indoctrination drive):
Read what Bérubé has to say. The AAUP report notes:
The group calling itself Students for Academic Freedom (SAF), for example, has advised students that “your 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. Under this view, current events or personages are beyond the pale unless a course is specifically about them. But this interpretation of “relevance” is inconsistent with the nature of higher education, in which “all knowledge can be connected to all other knowledge.” Whether material is relevant to a better understanding of a subject cannot be determined merely by looking at a course description…
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? 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? SAF would presumably sanction instructors for asking these types of questions, on the grounds that such questions are outside the purview of an official 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. …
How an instructor approaches the material in classroom exposition is, absent breach of professional ethics, a matter of personal style, influenced, as it must be, by the pedagogical goals and classroom dynamics of a particular course, as well as by the larger educational objective of instilling in students the capacity for critical and independent thought. The instructor in Melville or classical philosophy or Roman history must be free to draw upon current persons and events… Instructors must be free to employ a wide variety of examples in order to stimulate classroom discussion and thought. If allusions perform this function, they are not “irrelevant.” They are pedagogically justified.
One wonders how professors are supposed to show their students the relevance of the course material without reference to anything at all beyond the bounds of the course material. Given that the question many of us anticipate when thinking about how to present challenging course material is “How does any of this matter to me?” this isn’t an abstract question. Sometimes the stuff that matters to our students isn’t easy to locate in the details of quantum theory or the rules for conjugating Latin verbs. That might mean making reference to issues of day to day life in a physical world (perhaps as a dog), or of communicating clearly while texting a friend. We need to build bridges between what they already care about and the kinds of things they could do with the bodies of knowledge we’re trying to open up for them.
And sometimes, we’re trying to offer memorable analogies to help the new information stick better.
Anyway, go read the report.