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What Is "Academic Freedom," Really?

Joshua Youngkin

A couple of weeks ago, as David Klinghoffer noted yesterday, journalist Sarah Posner called me to talk to me about academic freedom. Because I know about academic freedom, I talked to her about that subject. Unfortunately, in her report for Al Jazeera America, Posner instead quoted Josh Rosenau from the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) on the nature of academic freedom:

By passing these new "academic freedom" laws, legislators are "trying to change what academic freedom means," Rosenau said.

But Rosenau is confused.

There is no such thing as "what academic freedom means."

In 2011, Stanley Fish debated Cary Nelson, then the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), on the many "meanings, applications and limits of academic freedom." In that debate Fish inaugurated — right there and then — the field of academic freedom studies and named its five schools.

Fish has since written a manuscript for a forthcoming book on these five schools. I am reviewing that manuscript now. The book is not out yet, and the manuscript can’t be freely quoted from at this point, but, instead of quoting Rosenau, Posner could have quoted from any of Fish’s earlier published works on academic freedom, like Save the World on Your Own Time.

Posner.jpegOr Posner could have simply called Fish for a quote. Or she could have called other academic freedom experts like Dean Robert Post of Yale Law, Larry Alexander of USD Law, or Frederick Schauer of UVA Law. These experts will do a roundtable on Fish and academic freedom at FIU Law next year. (And FIU Law Review plans to treat this subject in the pages of a forthcoming volume; I’ve submitted a brief comment on Fish.) Why not talk to and quote any one of them?

But, no, Posner instead quotes Josh Rosenau — a nonlawyer and nonacademic — as an authority on this subject. What is it with journalists? Why do they keep printing untrained opinions on academic freedom?

Anyway, as I told Posner on the phone, academic freedom has nothing to do with religion; they are separate subjects. History makes this point. Academic freedom entered public life as a set of nonreligious principles embodied in the AAUP’s 1915 declaration. Since then academic freedom made its way into court cases and, in part because of that, into university handbooks on faculty rights and responsibilities.

(Here’s one of those handbooks. Pretty religious, right? — like reading the Bible or sitting in church?)

Now, as Fish regularly points out, the most liberal school of academic freedom emphasizes "freedom" at the expense of "academic." The most conservative school, of which Fish is the lead proponent, does the reverse.

The liberal school says, basically, that teachers should deliberately turn students into revolutionaries ready, willing and able to "save the world" from this injustice or that. The conservative school says, no, teachers should teach mastery of disciplinary skills and subject matter, and then let students do with that whatever they want. The liberal school says teachers must be, in light of their unique mission to save the world, uniquely free among the world’s professions. The conservative school says, no, teaching is just a job like any other, one that is bound by contract and other familiar sources of workaday restraint.

Granted, the liberal school of academic freedom is clearly inappropriate for the K-12 context, where students are young, impressionable, and in class by virtue of state requirement. But the Fishian conservative school of academic freedom is just fine for K-12. Indeed, it is this school of thought that informs the policy behind the academic freedom legislation that I talk to lawmakers about.

Echoing Fish, academic freedom legislation tells teachers in plain, highly visible English to stay out of religion, which is not their business, and to stick to teaching critical thinking on science subjects already covered in official curricula, which is their business. It also reminds administrators to create an atmosphere conducive to this teacherly work, which is their business, and further reminds them that they can’t bar teachers from teaching critical thinking on science subjects already covered in official curricula, which is not part of the administrator’s job description anyway. �

It is good for a state legislature to use legislation to remind the state’s schools what business they are in, what business they are not in, and how they’ve already agreed to divide up the labor between teachers and administrators. Frankly, that’s their job.

As for our job, Discovery Institute is in the business of academic freedom. It is what we do. So, journalists, feel free to talk to Discovery Institute about that. Certain law school professors, mentioned above, are in a similar business. Talk to them about that. But the NCSE is not in the business of academic freedom. So stop printing their opinions on academic freedom. They have no idea what that is or how it works.

Photo credit: Sarah Posner.

Joshua Youngkin

An attorney, and previously, Discovery Institute Program Officer in Public Policy and Legal Affairs.