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‘Academic Freedom for Students Has Ancient Roots’

Gary Pavela, director of judicial programs at the University of Maryland at College Park, wrote an interesting article in The Chronicle of Higher Education today (account required to access) about student academic freedom, pointing out the role of dialogue, mutual questioning, and collaboration in a learning environment based on trust. Pavela writes:

[The] Socratic conception of teaching is also ingrained in the earliest formulations of academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors. The association’s 1915 “General Declaration of Principles” stated that academic freedom had two applications: The freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and the freedom to learn (Lernfreiheit). According to the declaration, honoring the freedom to learn means that teachers should not “provide ... students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves.” The idea that students should be seen as partners in academic inquiry was also embraced in the “Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students,” endorsed by 10 higher-education associations, and codified by the AAUP in 1967.

Being “free to learn” means being free from indoctrination. Most faculty members want to avoid that, but drawing lines between impassioned argument and indoctrination can be difficult. Is it “indoctrination” for a professor to express a strong point of view in the classroom? Do colleges “indoctrinate” students when they require study of the language and literature of specific cultures?

To those questions, standing alone, the answer is no. Great teachers can be extravagantly opinionated, and some of the best courses are required. Yet in neither context do most students feel “indoctrinated.” Why not? Because, at heart, students can sense a difference between teaching that serves as a catalyst to independent thought and teaching that serves to stifle it.

…The full scope of student academic freedom should be defined by the collaborative efforts of students and teachers. At a conference on legal issues in higher education at the University of Vermont, William A. Kaplin, a law professor at Catholic University of America, urged attendees to recognize the long history of student and teacher collaboration and to resist the trend “to turn every dispute or disagreement into a legal problem.” When it comes to current controversies about bias in the classroom, we would do well to look to the classical roots of higher education rather than courts and legislatures.

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