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Mar 31, 2008 7:57 am

Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility

In my email this afternoon, I received the Association of American Colleges and Universities' new statement on "Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility." It's not short, but I'd be curious to see folks' reaction to it around these parts. Over the years, I've been a skeptic of conservative claims of deep bias in the academy (or, alternately, I've been a defender of what I see as some "best practices" in pedagogy, as I think "political correctness" is just bad teaching) and the AAC&U is certainly a left-leaning organization. I'm happy to say I think this statement is largely excellent, and would be interested in others' takes on it.

I like a good deal of what the AAC&U does (I'll be at their national meeting in DC in three weeks), particularly with respect to the importance of liberal education and the need to take more seriously student learning and the centrality of good undergraduate instruction. The program I administer here (our First-Year Program) is certainly built around the values of liberal education that this statement outlines, and in my work with faculty colleagues and students in my courses, I'd like to think I'm on the same page as this statement in claiming that what we care first and foremost about is developing our students' capacity to engage in informed "judgment" among competing claims to the truth. If that is one of our primary learning goals, then making good judgments (and offering arguments and evidence for them) must, as the document argues, involve understanding a variety of competing perspectives on any issue. If you can't counter the other side(s), you aren't learning what a liberally educated person should learn. That is why intellectual diversity is important - because our students will learn more and learn better (which is to say, we will be better teachers) if they are exposed to competing perspectives on issues.

As the document also rightly argues, the decision about what counts as a legitimate perspective in the debate (e.g., "intelligent design" is not science) ultimately rests in the hands of trained faculty in the context of their disciplines, as does the decision about how much diversity there is to be in any given course. What the document does not address at all are the concerns about hiring processes. If intellectual diversity is important to liberal education, then how can you ensure that faculty or programs are able to provide a range of perspectives for students if faculty hire people who are intellectually or politically just like themselves? The document seems to imply that institutions that are committed to the goals AAC&U articulates here should be paying attention to intellectual diversity in the hiring process. After all, how well can an Economics department full of neoclassical economists really teach other perspectives (e.g. Austrian or Institutionalist, much less, say, Marxist)? And how well can a Sociology department full of Marxists or Foucauldians really teach students diverse views (and the differences between Marx and Foucault do not count) of sociological phenomena, like poverty? Too often, I see colleagues make a pass at intellectual diversity by assigning a reading critical of the framework they oppose and claim that's sufficient to expose the student to it. I don't think so. Even with the emphasis on the value of intellectual diversity, the AAC&U document, not surprisingly, says nothing about the role of the hiring process in limiting such diversity, or about ways it could be changed to increase such diversity. This is unfortunate I think.

In any case, comments are open for reaction, especially from those of you involved with NAS and other critics of the academy.

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More Comments:

Steven Horwitz - 1/8/2006

I was both impressed and a little suprised that the AAC&U document condemned both the ABOR and anti-war protestors who are disrupting talks by those with different views.

And thanks to you David and your crew for fighting the good fight at the AHAs.

David T. Beito - 1/7/2006

After a day of bad news (see above), it is nice to read this.