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Taking Back the Classroom?

Timing it to coincide with September 11 remembrances, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) released its June 2007 report, Freedom in the Classroom, as a response to “critics of higher education and opponents of academic freedom” who “want all class discussion to be limited by the course description.” The press release title, “Taking Back the Classroom,” thus has a double meaning: the critics allegedly want to take back the classroom from allegedly one-sided dogmatic professors, and the AAUP wants to take back anything the critics have already taken.

I do not feel sanguine about the suggestion of force in the idea of “taking back,” nor am I sure that it was a good idea to invoke “Take Back the Night” rallies—which suggests that university professors are in the same category as victims of sexual assault who need a safe environment in which to speak out about their victimization.

The report takes pains to draw out some definitions about the academic responsibilities of professors with regard to course content. What material should count as “relevant” or “irrelevant,” what kind of “balance” is appropriate to expect or require, and when does strong advocacy of a view become “dogmatism” in the classroom? And don’t the immediate context and the nature of each course make (almost) all the difference? What are the proper limits, if any, for a “speech code” that distinguishes genuine harassment and a “hostile learning environment” from comments that make someone uncomfortable, offended, or upset? The authors of the report recognize that there is a line that can be crossed in each area.

For instance: “The ideal of balance makes sense only in light of an instructor's obligation to present all aspects of a subject matter that professional standards would require to be presented.”

And: “It is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced. Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended.”

FIRE is taking a close look at the definitions and arguments provided by the AAUP report. Stay tuned. In the meantime, here is Emory professor Mark Bauerlein’s analysis of a related AAUP article.

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