In Defense against Academic Freedom

In the August 27th, 1966 edition of Saturday Review, then-Vice President Richard Nixon and the revered American Historian, Henry Steele Commager, both authored distinct editorials defining the concept of academic freedom and its acceptable applications in higher education, at that time a more respectable American institution.[1] Both men write passionately, their missives void of artifice, exhorting officials to permit students to freely exercise their political viewpoints on college campuses during the Vietnam-era, when heightened scrutiny of one’s political leanings in public forums was at a fever pitch.

As to public college[2] professors, however, both men cautioned the university in granting them expressive latitude pursuant to their contractual duties on its premises. Nixon acknowledged the natural right of these educators to hold political viewpoints but advised them to exercise self-restraint so as not to unduly inflame or influence students to adopt anti-American sentiments. To him, America held its scholars to different, higher standards of conduct after having granted them full autonomy to direct their specialized knowledge and flex their prestige within a powerful American institution. Commager couched his apprehensions in the context of an enduring legacy of higher education: “…to act as the critic and the conscience of society. Society has indeed created it [higher education] to play this role.”[3] However, he defers to the unspoken social contract insisting professors be demure toward politics while in the college’s employ: “We require you, therefore, if you would not betray your historic function, to avoid all that is merely parochial, all that is interested, all that is prejudiced.”[4]

These narratives are the table stakes in discussions on the purpose of public higher education and, by extension, the standards of its faculty. A far less commonly addressed issue, however, centers on a more discreet means that some public college educators use to advance their political leanings:  curriculum development, specifically course creation, whose content and delivery are as parochial and mediocre as the teacher’s politics are prejudiced and uninformed. Some niche courses, like Cornell’s “Tree Climbing” or San Diego State’s “Invented Languages: Klingon and Beyond,” are wondrously apolitical but questionably relevant in any way, further underscoring the deficiencies in undergraduate education nationwide.

Liberal arts and social sciences are the primary culprits, amending course catalogs with such apolitical novelties including “American Degenerates,” “Whiteness:  The Other Side of Racism,” “Cyberfeminism,” and “The Lucifer Effect:  How Good People Turn Evil.” Present in all tiers of higher education, this tactic is thickest among Ph.Ds. at four-year public institutions that have historically emphasized professional research accomplishments over effective instructional practices for over a century. Many of these doctorates are neither short on bluff nor bluster, and conveniently rationalize their pet political projects as “fun” or “more engaging” for students when all likelihood, little credence will be given to pedagogical matters.[5] Department heads rarely will follow up with an evaluation, trusting that the initial sales pitch that sounded sweet in person and read persuasively on paper will transfer just as successfully when applied in the classroom. Philosopher William James even criticized the university’s chronic tendency to conflate the conferment of a Ph.D. with the presence of sound pedagogy, leading the prominent social scientist to tersely quip, “Will any one [sic] pretend for a moment that the doctor’s degree is a guarantee that its possessor will be successful as a teacher? … his moral, social and personal characteristics may utterly disqualify him for success in the class-room; and of these characteristics his doctor’s examination is unable to take any account whatever.”[6]

Instructionally, niche professors largely default to lecture with a smattering of “loaded” discussion, whereby a class forum marches to preemptive questions basted heavily with partisanship. Student spontaneity can be hushed altogether, manipulated to favor a different view, or retailed as the opposition to then be ridiculed and condemned. Objectivity is summarily jailed while revisionism runs amok, purging tradition and vandalizing truth, replaced with fanciful interpretations of timeworn themes of power and control.

Nixon’s last of his “Four Academic Freedoms”—an intentional play on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s influential, “Four Freedoms,” decades before—preserves “the freedom of the student from tyranny by the faculty…”[7] (emphasis mine). Many niche courses represent a valid form of academic tyranny, not freedom. They are often cocktails of entitlement and fraud, blended by niche instructors and force-fed to students who experience nothing short of an academic “bait-and-switch.” Like activist judges who manipulate American jurisprudence in the name of democracy, these professors engineer clever ways to spin gold from straw in the name of education.

This strain of academic freedom runs amok of faculty’s obligations to instruct undergraduate students in a more pragmatic, essentialist manner in accordance with economic demand and unencumbered by novelty or postmodernism. Moreover, the politicization or aimlessness of a course further risks dispossessing minority viewpoints in favor of a mob majority, a tactic running aground to the inclusivity and democratization that many of niche professors preach but ironically fail to practice.

A caricature thus emerges from this brand of academic freedom—that of the college professor, pontificating ad nauseum to scores of impressionable or oblivious students, an academic sideshow further rendering American undergraduate education as the circus it risks becoming.

 

 

 

 

[1] This piece targets educators who routinely disguise their lackluster or poor teaching abilities with niche courses whose relevance to a program’s stated outcomes and objectives is tenuous at best, deceptive at worst. This is not condemning any instructor who has created what could be considered a niche course, nor is this ridiculing Ph.Ds who do exhibit best teaching practices.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, “college” is synonymous with all levels of public higher education in this paper. Also, “professor” is used interchangeably with non-Ph.D. representatives for convenience and to underscore my belief that a terminal degree rarely correlates positively to effective instructional methods. Often, there is a negative correlation, owing to the overemphasis on research at the expense of undergraduate education.

[3] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 37.

[4] Ibid, p. 37.

[5] Kevin Carey’s The End of College (2015) and Cathy Davidson’s The New Education (2017) aptly highlight the shoddy quality of undergraduate education in American colleges and universities.

[6] As cited in Carey (2015), p. 32.

[7] Nixon, R. and H.S. Steele. (1966 Aug 27). “What do we mean by academic freedom?” Saturday Review, p. 12.

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Contrarian to the Common

Former college instructor with 17 total years’ experience split between the public two-year community college and public four-year state university. My commentaries address matters germane to higher education but also to broader social, political, cultural, and socioeconomic topics representative of the American public, if only to a slim minority. I value independent, critical thought free of blind allegiance, unfounded assumptions, and baldfaced censorship. I appreciate your time and the resulting fandom or spite that my musings might invite.