At Columbia Teachers College, a Serious Problem with an Easy Solution

October 16, 2006

Reading some of the coverage of FIRE’s opposition to Columbia Teachers College’s “social justice” requirement, I believe there are a few important points that need to be emphasized. One is that the change FIRE is asking for is really rather modest. It simply isn’t right to have a policy that says that students must demonstrate their belief in any ideology—whether that ideology be patriotism or social justice—at a college that claims to highly value individual freedom. Teachers College’s requirement that students demonstrate a “commitment” to “social justice” crosses a line from suggesting values to which educators believe students might wish to aspire, to saying, flat out, that students will be judged on their personal political beliefs.

Columbia is trying to address the concerns of FIRE, the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and other critics by saying that this isn’t, in fact, a political litmus test. By the plain language of Teachers College’s standards, however, it is. If they genuinely do not impose a political litmus test, then they should change the language of the standards to reflect that reality. If they don’t really mean students must show a “commitment to social justice,” it should not be in the standards. If they do mean it, it is hard to imagine how this could be enforced without reference to students’ political, moral, and/or personal beliefs.

FIRE also recognizes that private institutions are free to define their identities, to take their own positions, and to expound on their ideas of good pedagogy. What they may not do, as a matter of law or of fairness, is publicly promise respect for free speech (with the freedom of thought that this requires) and then turn around and require officially sanctioned beliefs.

The discussion in our letter of the ideas of “merit” and “individual responsibility” are examples of how Teachers College apparently defines “social justice.” To be clear: FIRE has no position Teachers College’s conception of social justice, other than that Teachers College has no right to impose its definition on its students and evaluate them against any “correct” definition of social justice. Indeed, Teachers College could prescribe the precisely opposite view of “merit” and “individual responsibility,” and it would be no less troubling. Teachers College is perfectly free to posit whatever theories they choose, but students should be welcome—as a matter of both practice and policy—to question the accepted definition of “social justice” and to arrive at their own conclusions on the best methodologies for teaching. An open atmosphere where students and professors can freely discuss different ideas of social justice, merit, and inequality would benefit everyone at the school, and could even lead to new and innovative ideas on these topics.

The problem with the standards is quite serious, but the solution is also quite simple. I believe this is President Bollinger’s real test. If he really does believe in the essentiality of free speech, he must understand that no college policy should define “correct” internal beliefs. Teachers College’s standards can and should be rewritten and reformed to reflect this.

Schools:  Columbia University

Cases:  Columbia University: Ideological Litmus Tests at Teachers College