FIRE Announces Winners of 2009 ‘Freedom in Academia’ Essay Contest

By on December 15, 2009

Today, FIRE announced the winners of our 2009 "Freedom in Academia" high school essay contest. Out of the over 2,700 submissions for the contest, FIRE chose eight winning essays. Home school student Nathaniel Cornelius of Paynesville, Minnesota, wrote the winning essay, Andrew David King of Moreau Catholic High School in Hayward, California, and Eric Podolsky of Sylvania Southview High School in Sylvania, Ohio, took the two second-place slots, and five other students were runners-up.

FIRE announced the 2009 "Freedom in Academia" essay contest in September, asking students to write essays of 700-1,200 words on how universities betray their true purpose when they abrogate the free speech rights of their students. Students were to base their essays on two documentaries from FIRE’s site—FIRE in Action: Valdosta State University and Think What We Think… Or Else: Thought Control on the American Campusas well as other information on FIRE’s website. FIRE sent invitations for entries to nearly 11,000 high schools across the country and posted information on dozens of scholarship websites.

Nathaniel Cornelius wrote the winning essay, "Educational Institutions or Reeducation Camps?" He explains how the actions of Valdosta State University and the University of Delaware were antithetical to the purpose of a university by prescribing ideological educational outcomes for students. Nathaniel writes,

These actions reveal blatant instances of circular reasoning, as the university’s philosophical conclusions predetermined the framework in which students could acceptably think. Colleges should be gardens of free inquiry and unbridled intellectual growth, not machines that stifle free expression and stunt students’ development as persons. When a university uses freshman orientation to squeeze students into an ideological mold based on its particular set of presuppositions, or when it expels those who dare to question its strategic decisions, it is functioning more like a re-education camp than an educational institution.

Andrew David King took one of the second-place prizes. His essay, "In Clear and Present Danger: The State of Personal Liberty in America," explains the threat to free thought and human dignity posed by universities’ censorship. Andrew writes,

It is highly damaging to the larger academic community for a university to stifle the speech of its students to any extent. By trying to forcefully alter the opinions of individuals, colleges encourage a culture of self-repression, and create an environment in which complacent students go unnoticed or awarded, while honest people—regardless of the legitimacy of their statements—are punished for expressing their ideas. It is contrary to intellectual progress and integrity to subvert individuals of any persuasion into accepting a social code with subjective parameters clearly intended to mold any obtuseness into regularity.

[...]

The question I postulate is this: Which is more dangerous, the occasional issuing of controversial or offensive statements by students, or the placement of free expression under the jurisdiction of administrations with sociopolitical agendas?

Eric Podolsky penned the other second-place essay, "Losing the Marketplace of Ideas." In his essay, Eric explores the importance of competing ideas for the advancement of learning in a university setting. He writes,

An important distinction to make with colleges is whether they tell students how to think or what to think. When a university tells students how to think, it presents them with relevant data from both sides and lets them make their own decisions through debate and soul-searching. However, when a university tells students what to think, as [the University of Delaware] did in this situation, it stifles free thought, implicitly or explicitly, and indoctrinates students with a certain idea…However, in a society where we are taught to speak freely and question common knowledge, our universities ought to be the pinnacle of unabated free thought.

The marketplace of ideas is the best way to harvest good ideas in society, and the universities of the world are the best places to house this marketplace of ideas. As students learn from their classes, universities should also give students the room to flourish and form their own opinions, and even question the authority of the university itself. 

Cornelius will receive a $5,000 college scholarship, King and Podolsky will each receive $2,500 college scholarships, and each runner-up will receive a $1,000 college scholarship. Runners-up in the contest were Danielle Wogulis of Davis Senior High School, Rachel Ochoa of Evangel Classical Christian School, Rachel Helmstetter of Pinnacle High School, Erin Kahn of Sprague High School, and Morgan Turner of Twin Oaks Academy. All of the winning essays are published here.

FIRE received many excellent entries. We thank the winners for their hard work, and we congratulate them on a job well done. FIRE is grateful that so many civic-minded students took the time and effort to research this important topic and to write such excellent essays for this award.