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.

The Change Colleges Need?

Goucher College’s New Curriculum and those alike have taken a revolutionary step forward in reforming what are commonly known as general education requirements. The traditional distributive method of checking boxes next to courses under distinct groupings with specific conditions to meet has fallen into disrepute at not only Goucher College, but also at The College of William and Mary (integrative, domain-based) and Arizona State University (sectors with minimal, open distributive requirements). Among all are similar numbers of available courses within each domain (or representative thereof) at around a half-dozen, significantly fewer than most traditional distributive general education requirements.

But after viewing clips on Goucher College’s website of college President Jose Antonio Bowen explaining its revolutionary approach beginning Fall 2018, I am hesitant on how applicable and successful this approach will be compared to the more alluring—and potentially damning—theory behind its presumptive success. Put differently, the gulf between theory and application appears prohibitively wider here.

I hope I stand wrong, however. The waters that Goucher and others have waded into are in desperate need a new dominance hierarchy, especially in the historically bungled pursuit of establishing a respectable undergraduate education in America.

On Goucher College’s website, specifically in the section addressing this new curriculum, President Bowen narrates a series of clips to explain this new approach to students’ first year at college. Below are a series of Bowen’s statements followed by my evaluation.

“Most of what you need to know in terms of content we cannot actually teach you because it hasn’t yet been discovered.”

This dovetails nicely with the oft-trumpeted presumption that what students are training for or being educated in now relates to jobs that do not yet exist. YouTube has a cache of mesmerizing videos that animate bewildering facts about the present and future that are more extreme than previous years’ clips, including presumed facts that further mystify this future economy. This clever marketing deepens the mystery of our immediate economic fate while simultaneously stoking the fears of students missing out on acquiring these skills that will command new roles, fields, and perhaps industries, all of which we are not yet fully aware.

Whatever mysteries that will exist, colleges are not the reasonable places to discover and demystify them. Not in their current version, anyway, even when factoring in renovated general education requirements. Business and industry are the proper places, notably those responsible for or directly impacted by the disruptions endemic to economic upheaval, good or bad. (I advocate for a more pronounced business-academia partnership in an upcoming post.)

Colleges can equip students with basic skill sets that somehow escaped so many an earlier age, but it shan’t require so many years. Nor should any current undergraduate college education in its present form, save for the rigors of STEM-related fields and industries. Not all college majors or programs are equal in economic value and reasonably so. I would never demand my literature and English credentials receive equal pay as an engineer with similar degree credentials would in the open market; collegiate programs should be treated just as accordingly.

“The most important thing in college is to learn about your own thinking, what we call being a ‘self-directed learner.’”

If students entering college do not know how they “think best” from the previous 13 years of schooling, the first two years in higher education will do little but reinforce to certain students how poor their senses of prioritization and judgment are, at least for the first year. Many students are convinced their methods of learning work, and perhaps that is true. Other students simply do not care to try something new out of a comfortable sense of complacency. (This trait complements today’s students’ collective aversion to risk-taking, including “risks” that are actually obligations, like attendance and deadlines.)

Put simply, discovery is a desire, and like confidence, it cannot be readily taught. It is far more inherent, at least in an actionable sense, which is the sense that matters most. Simply feeling inspired without capitalizing on it yields nothing productive in return. The process of discovery is not new and does not warrant the number of approaches that allegedly work this process best, especially considering young humans’ penchant for being stubbornly mercurial.

I do have to comment on Mr. Bowen’s presentation at this point in this video segment. Here, he assumes a supplicative tone when addressing the kind of traditional courses incoming students must take, such as “a little bit of” chemistry, philosophy, math, “but not everyone needs calculus.” He mitigates students responsibility to take seriously these courses and to heed essential information that without it, would render even the savviest of students useless. He grovels to students, conceding they will have to exhibit “some ability and some comfort level with” required course content. Rather than be straightforward, his tone folds into a slight shame, as how a pushover adult may act when trying to calm a group of disgruntled children. He unwittingly concludes, “so it’s really more about how you think and how you learn rather than what you learn.”

Any layperson with a lick of understanding that education in America is unforgivably substandard may find this approach so novel, so refreshing, that they would miss what experienced educators as myself find troubling:  relegating content to the peripherals of education in favor for time-consuming, trendy meta-learning theories that upend the centrality of content in any learning theory, including inquiry-based.

You should pick a major based on your desire for learning and your passion and your ability to change your mind.”

When discussing how Goucher prepares students for the future, Mr. Bowen downplays valid economic predictions as to which  industries will grow and dominate and which will wither and potentially perish. (Perhaps these are the same predictions conveniently thrown aside in favor of marketing the unknown future of careers in order to increase enrollment.)

He advises students to pursue their passions regardless of their sustainability in a rather merciless career market. “You’re going to be learning new things your entire life,” he declares. But this is immaterial. Furthermore, I do not fathom many students choosing something they anticipate hating but pursue it anyway, at least not to a degree that warrants this kind of response and subsequent curricular action. And pursuing a career that a student, now as an employee, would hate does not imply that learning new things is not a possibility. That misery deadens the ability to learn. And even if so, then that is on the student.

In all, too much emphasis on colleges employing novel strategies believing they would work regardless of the composition of the student body. There needs to be a frank conversation in literature on how significant cultural differences among student bodies, especially those enrolled in community colleges, affect curricular changes on such a large scale. Put differently, it is critical to track and analyze the success of applied educational policy on students among different geographical pockets and could provide a more accurate analysis of how to best cater to an array of student populations that cannot be reduced to a few oversimplified national statistics.

And finally, the “jobs that do not yet exist” rhetoric needs to be tempered in general and avoided altogether in education, specifically. No matter how innovate general education requirements may be, they still consume an unforgivable amount of students’ time that would be better spent immediately shadowing an industry representative before interning to further hone that student’s desirable skill sets. And from my professional experiences, many students desire to be pigeonholed in a particular career and not waste two years’ time allegedly becoming “a more well-rounded citizen,” as is the common refrain.

New roles will erupt in existing industries, true, but there will always exist enduring practices and careers requiring not only a human presence, but also human ingenuity. Problem-solving skills are critical, as are communication skills. Markets are not going to change so drastically within four – five years (or two – three for community college students) for institutions to adopt such a cavalier attitude toward traditional learning and an emphasis on content—the stuff of thought, the basis for informed decision making, the foundation of all inquiry.

I look forward to Mr. Bowen and other brave administrators and executives proving me wrong.