As noted in the title, the purpose of this piece is to offer some additional thoughts on the idea of academic freedom. This was prompted by a recent piece on the Retraction Watch blog, “Yes, we are seeing more attacks on academic freedom: guest post by historian of science and medicine”
But this requires a few thoughts about the nature of education in this country first. There is, in my own mind at least, a subtle attack being played on the educational system in this country. It is a subtle attack because, as so many attacks do, it is cleverly disguised as reform and improvement. Now, this is not going to be a diatribe or rant about Common Core because 1) I happened to believe that there is a common set of information everyone should have and 2) my disagreement with the Common Core Curriculum is with its implementation and not its content.
I think that most parents have problems with it because they don’t understand what’s going on and they do not want to take the time to visit with their children’s teachers and find out what they, the parents, need to do. In one sense, that’s nothing new; for the most part, parents have never really been involved in the children’s learning process, other than to complain when their children are failing educationally and then it is all the teacher’s fault. I suppose I could go with this topic but I will save it for another time.
The second problem is that Common Core is trying (or at least I think it is trying) to bring back certain aspects of the learning process that have been kicked out, namely the process of thinking and analyzing. It is one thing to remember information; it is an entirely different thing to think about the information and analyze what it means and what one can do with it.
I have said this before and I will say it again. If all we do is teach our children how to answer the questions on a test, they will be unable to solve the problems that haven’t arisen yet. But if we teach our children how to think and analyze, then no problem is unsolvable.
Second, the purpose of teaching should never be to prepare a student for the next year of study (though that has to be the dominant thought in the early years of education). One must teach the skills necessary for a student to learn on their own and to continue learning after formal education is completed. Right now, it appears that we are doing quite well in the first area but doing very little in the second.
And I am coming to believe that there is a cadre of individuals who would rather our children be an army of mindless robots, unable to question authority, so as to insure that they remain in power and have the ability to name their successors. I cannot help but think that this cadre of individuals would much rather return to the days of royalty and the divine-right of kings with the ability to choose who shall lead this country instead of accepting the ideas and ideals that made this country.
There are many aspects to the idea of academic freedom. I will accept the notion that, having been educated in how to teach chemistry as well as the actual field of chemistry, I should be given the freedom to teach it in a way that helps my students learn the material that is designated by the curriculum and prepares them for future learning.
And I will admit I have received in the years that I taught at the high school and college level much grief when I wouldn’t teach the answers on the test.
Now, as I pointed out in “Continuing Thoughts On Academic Freedom”, academic freedom, it can also mean allowing thoughts which you may not accept to be presented. But one has to understand the difference between an academic discussion of an idea and the presentation of information on what is essentially a “my way or the highway” approach.
What I think bothers to many people is that the purpose of education is to provide the skills necessary for the development of free thinking. And free thinking, while not always the greatest, is the greatest single challenge to totalitarianism one could ever imagine. For me, it would be a violation of my own academic freedom for any group to dictate what I can say in the classroom (and perhaps, also in the pulpit).
For me, the greatest attack on academic freedom has to be in the area of thought about the creation of this universe, this solar system, and the life on this particular planet.
As a lay speaker, my focus is on the Gospel and its application to life. As such, I very seldom find the opportunity to introduce science ideas. Having said that, having a science background helps to critically analyze the Scripture readings. In doing so, it makes it easier to show the truth of the Gospels.
Now, it might be different in the chemistry classroom. At the beginning of an introductory chemistry course, I spend some time with theory development. There are opportunities to suggest the difference between science and faith. But when one teaches in a public school, one has to be very careful not to emphasize one over the other.
A few years ago we were discussing 1/2-lives. For some of my students, this presented a quandary. As conservative Jews, the implications of this idea created a problem with their religion and its view of the world. Now, because these particular students were going into emergency medical response professions, this was, for me, not a problem. These students knew how to work the problems they would encounter and this would allow them to pass the course. In after class discussions, I pointed out that they had to resolve the problem created by the two situations.
I don’t think it is my job to challenge a student’s faith but I have to suggest ways to resolve the conflicts they are likely to encounter between science and their faith.
I think that at one time I had been required to memorize the poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Charge Of The Light Brigade.” But I have probably forgotten most of it. But I do remember some verses of it, most notably, “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.” If that is all that our education system will do, we have a problem.