The Nature of Academic Freedom

When I began thinking about this piece several days ago, it was with a single item in mind. But then something happened at a college in South Carolina that spoke to the same topic on a little larger scale. And all of this is occurring against the backdrop of reforming education.

What is academic freedom?

I suppose that one could define academic freedom as the freedom of speech applied to an academic environment. But is such a freedom for all on a campus, student, faculty and administration alike? Or is it limited? And if it is limited, who is to decide the limits?

When I was an undergraduate many, many years ago, my college operated on the unstated principle of “in loco parentis” or “in the place of the parent.” Such a principle or doctrine allowed the college to act in what they felt were the best interests of the student. And it was explained to any student who would question that principle as a parent would explain a “ruling” to a child being disciplined, “because we said it would be that way and you have to accept that decision.” And if you do not agree to our decision, then you must accept the punishment for your misbehavior.

A Single Student

Back in October, I reported in my piece “How Ironic” about a student, Jess Zimmerman, at Butler University. As I noted then, Jess was a student at Butler who began an anonymous blog that was critical of the administration of Butler University in their removal of his step-mother as Chair of the School of Music. In an attempt to intimidate Jess, the school also did not renew his father’s contract as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Science.

Then, the university sought legal action against Jess. Initially, the university sued “John Doe” because they claimed to not know who the blogger was, even after Jess acknowledged that he was in fact “John Doe.” If you are like me, this was clearly an attempt to stifle the free speech of an individual and the courts rejected the University’s claims.

But the University was not content to accept this loss; they then proceeded to initiate university disciplinary action against Jess. And when he sought an injunction against these actions, the university demanded a $100,000 bond. The issue has been resolved though some aspects of the settlement are to be kept secret. If you are interested in the details of this wonderful story of academic intrigue and the violation of civil rights, Jess’ blog is and I encourage you to see what is happening.

If you believe as I do that education is a liberating force, you would also agree that this episode is about oppression. Now, one might argue that students do not have the right to express their own opinion and that they should just sit quietly in their seats and learn what their elders are teaching them.

However, this argument doesn’t hold water. What’s the purpose of higher education if students aren’t allowed to question things?

Perhaps that is the case but this wasn’t about something in the classroom; this was something that happened in the world outside the classroom that Jess was in. And he had every right, in my opinion, to express his thoughts on the matter. And the actions of Butler University clearly represent the actions of people who do not want their actions to be exposed to the light of scrutiny. I do not know if their decision to not renew Jess’ mother’s contract was right or not but their subsequent actions in attempting to intimidate him speak of an academic dictatorship rather than academic freedom.

The actions of Butler University are not a singular episode in the life of this country but reflective of the past few years where actions by the leadership of this country have been done in secrecy and with deceit. If we do not speak out against these actions when they occur in our lives, then each moment of silence takes away the freedom that this country was built upon.

I have been reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and I am reminded that the church in Germany in the early 30s was remarkably silent about what Adolph Hitler was trying to do. And when it came time to speak up, there were very few people left to speak.

It is happening again and we must speak out. And we must continue to seek an educational system and process that liberates rather than oppresses.

Due West, South Carolina

I have no idea how this little town in South Carolina got its name but I passed through it back in 1988 when I was headed to Jacksonville, Florida, for the USBC Open tournament. I went there because my mother knew the president of Erskine College from their days in high school.

And the news out of Due West these days is not good (see and It turns out that Erskine College is part of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The church describes itself as conservative and evangelical and well to the right of other Presbyterian churches when it comes to political and societal issues.

But there are only 250 or so churches in this group so it is not logical for the church to demand or require that the students and faculty at its only college be members of its churches. It does require that students and faculty be Christian and it does welcome students from all faiths.

But leaders in the church have become concerned that the college has strayed from the faith. And part of the reason that they feel this way is the very nature of education. If education is a liberating force, it is because it teaches critical thinking and it teaches certain subjects that are often diametrically in opposition to teachings of the faith. And, yes, I mean evolution.

But the problem is more than just the teaching of a course or, for that matter, not teaching the course. It is that not teaching the course or not teaching critical thinking skills limits what education can do; it limits the ability of the student to go beyond the boundaries of the classroom and explore the world. And just like the administrators at Butler University were afraid of what one student might possibly do by asking questions, so too are so many churches and faiths today afraid of what happens when the children of the faith begin to question the very tenets of the faith.

When we look at the traditional denominations, we see a significant decrease in membership, a decrease caused by the youth leaving the faith rather than the elders dying. The youth see the church as a dinosaur, failing to adapt to the world around them, failing to answer the questions that society is asking about hope and desire and what the future will provide.

The churches and the faiths that are holding their own or are increasing in membership are those who offer clear cut explanations for all the troubles of the world. But they are explanations that are not easily questioned and the elders of these growing churches do not want questions asked. But the time will come when questions are going to be asked and, unless there are answers for these questions, the youth will leave again, seeking their answers somewhere else.

God created us in His image and He gave us a mind to use; to not use it would be a denial of our creation. There are some who will tell us that the earth is only 6,000 years old because the Bible tells us so. To derive this age of the earth from information in the Bible is false logic and contradicts everything we know from the physical evidence of the rocks and the stars. But, to know who we are requires we ask the question why are there such differences and what are we to do?

When a denomination or a faith creates a college, it does so with specific intentions. If it wants to limit what the faculty can teach, it has that right. But it has to accept the consequences that develop when students begin questioning those limitations; it has to accept the consequences when it can no longer find individuals to teach in what the faith considers “acceptable” ways.

There are individuals like myself who grew up in the South. We were taught certain things about life in the South, what could be done and what was never done. And it was taught with an understanding that the Bible said that was the way it was, end of story.

But as we grew up and we saw the dichotomy in life, of one person oppressing another because of the race or gender or background, we came to understand that the Bible didn’t have it right. And the only way that we learned this was because we had been given the ability to think by and from God and that ability had been honed by education. For any church or faith to deny an individual the right to decide individually what the Bible means and what the message is as much a sin as any of the sins that are listed in the Bible.

In the case of Erskine College, the rules were already in place to allow such freedom. The denomination has decided to change the rules; that is their right. But they have to understand that their decision goes against the very nature of education and the meaning of creation. They will have to live with that for a lot longer than anyone else.

So What Do We Teach?

The whole nature of academic freedom focuses on the idea that an instructor can present information that might be in opposition to current societal thoughts. Otherwise, it would be very difficult to present new ideas. Within the framework of physical science, we can see through the lens of history the opposition that occurred when the Copernican theory of the solar system was introduced.

Now, if you feel that this is justification for the inclusion of “intelligent design” in the biology classroom, think again. The Copernican theory was based on the existing evidence and resolved certain contradictions in the explanations. “Intelligent design” does not offer a new explanation but only tries to assert a theological explanation for the physical evidence.

That doesn’t mean that discussion is automatically limited to what the instructor decides is appropriate. As I pointed out in “The Challenge of Education” instructors too often dismiss their students’ ideas as irrelevant or meaningless to the discussion. And sometimes they are, simply because the students haven’t learned how to present a rational argument. But any time instructors present their ideas with an all-or-nothing approach, as the only option or only choice, we risk alienating the students and those who seek to find answers to critical and crucial questions in their own lives. And that goes against the very notion of what education is meant to be.

And students have the right to present their arguments, as long as what they present is within the context of the information being presented and taught. If either the student or the instructor is seeking a confrontation of beliefs, then take it outside the classroom.

My role as the instructor in the classroom is two-fold, to present the information that you perhaps do not know and to do so in a way that will enable you to use it later in life. Your role as the student in the classroom is to be involved in the process, to make the information part of your life and your thinking. Each of us has to accept the idea that this process will change both of us, in ways that we may not know. If we seek a process in which there is no change, then we have learned little. But the nature of academic freedom means that we will grow and we will change and we will find things that we didn’t know.

4 thoughts on “The Nature of Academic Freedom

  1. Pingback: The Clash of Science, Culture, and Religion « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

  2. Pingback: “Continuing Thoughts on Academic Freedom” | Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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