Academic Freedom

Back in the day when I was teaching at the collegiate level we worried about academic freedom. In those days, it amounted to insisting that administrators allow faculty of differing opinions and philosophical convictions to speak their minds without recrimination. It also insisted on equal pay for equal work. It degenerated into unionization which, while it did raise salaries and save the careers of a number of faculty members, it also set a tone that I always felt was inimical to the ideals of collegiality that ought to be found on college campuses. But then I have been spitting into the wind so long my saliva is about used up.

Of late, however, the university faculties themselves are interfering with academic freedom. Increasingly, they are refusing to allow speakers to speak on campuses across the country, “controversial” figures like George W. Bush, Madeleine Albright, George Will, Paul Ryan, Condoleezza Rice, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Bear in mind that the universities that denied these people a voice on their campuses, because of student and faculty protests, are so-called “prestige” academies — places like Brandeis University, Stanford University, Boston College, Rutgers University, University of Minnesota, Yale University, and others of equal standing.

Students, often led by militant faculty with hidden agendas, are becoming increasingly strident in their opposition to ideas they regard as a threat to what they regard as social justice. In a word, they have their minds made up and cannot allow alien information to intrude on their convictions and deeply held beliefs. Increasing numbers of universities, in a word, are becoming closed systems that refuse to allow outside information to penetrate if it is determined by the vocal element on campus that those ideas are somehow harmful. There are exceptions, but they are increasingly rare.

Coupled with this intolerance in places that ought to be open to all ideas no matter how radical or outrageous, is the growing ignorance of the students and a great  number of the faculty. A recent study by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni determined that:

• Nearly 10% of recent college graduates think Judge Judy is a member of the Supreme Court.

• Less than 20% of those college graduates know the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation.

• More than a quarter of the college graduates did not know that Franklin D. Roosevelt was president during World War II.

• One-third did not know Franklin D. Roosevelt was the president who spearheaded the New Deal.

And so it goes. To augment their ignorance, many of those students, while enrolled, were involved in a variety of campus protests, including a group from Brown University that complained of the emotional stress and poor grades that followed from the months they spent protesting! They blamed the university for insisting that they complete coursework and demanded “incompletes” on their course work.

On many campuses protest seems to have become an end in itself as self-indulgent students increasingly complain about their course requirements and about the poor grades they receive as a result of their unwillingness to complete those requirements. And in many cases, intimidated or sympathetic faculty take the side of the students rather than take the lead in showing them the way out of their ignorance by opening them up to new intellectual horizons. For many who teach, followers are what it’s all about — especially those who give them praise in on-line evaluations that often determine how full or empty their classroom might be. The pressure to be popular, to give students a “break,” is immense and helps us to understand grade inflation. Pressure was immense when I taught and it has only increased as students’ sense of entitlement has grown by leaps and bounds in our permissive society.

In the end, the trend toward closing doors (and minds) to new ideas, coupled with the increasing tendency to ask little of spoiled students who complain when asked to do what they really would rather not do, will reduce our academies of higher learning to country clubs and mental health clinics where students can feel safe and protected from the realities of the world “out there.” In a word, universities are rapidly becoming more concerned about the “well-being” of the students than about their intellectual growth. This does not absolve members of college faculties of their responsibility to prepare their students for the real world; it merely recounts what seems to be a growing trend in academia.



16 thoughts on “Academic Freedom

  1. Good blog, Hugh. Thank you. Part of learning, of increasing our understanding of the world, has to be to recognize there are other perspectives out there — and to at least give them room to speak or write, even if we don’t want to listen or read (which we still should.) It shouldn’t matter if those opinions are from the left, right, Democrat, Conservative, feminist, genocide survivors from Rwanda, an Aleppo survivor, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc. They may have something to say that we can learn from, that bridges gaps of ignorance. How will we know if we don’t at least listen to one speech, read at least one essay from a viewpoint we disagree with?

    I go back to something I read several times when I took a history course on the rise and fall of Nazi Germany at South Dakota State. From his 20s on, HItler only read books or articles that reinforced his already solidifying views — never anything that differed. The more he read like that, the more rigid his mind became. That’s stuck with me for 35 years. Hitler’s an extreme example, of course, but too many of us are going down that road, listening to only one TV news source, reading only one or two news publications — and assuming the others are all biased. (I see this in adults my age and older, too, not only recent college grads. Seems like Fox News is on 24/7 in every nursing home, hotel lobby, hospital waiting room. Ugh.)

    There are some recent college grads I know — 24-30 years old — who are open-minded, who have a deep social conscience. A couple of kids my son grew up with work for progressive NGOs in Washington and New York. But there aren’t enough like that, of course. Not nearly.

    I hope you keep raising these issues. We have to be proactive, pre-emptive. Can’t wait for a major disaster or utter collapse of society to realize we’ve hollowed out our minds, and souls, from the inside.

    You also mentioned distressing lack of knowledge among many students about FDR and the New Deal and World War II. Well, have I got a book for them! (Or I will pretty soon!)

      • “Deep Social Conscience” eh? You know them…because they are like yourself? Must be nice.

        If you haven’t noticed, Professor, the whole Work of Enlightenment in America, and thus of Classical Enlightenment has utterly FAILED. I have to wonder who is responsible for that, as a matter of Courage and Virtue.

        I’m pretty sure who and what these kind of Ivory Tower personalities are, but…as a matter of my own and social Grace, I cannot explicitly say. But it’s fairly clear that the Cowards of the Past have somehow become the avowed Heroes of the Future. You can be sure that THIS is NOT true. Those comfortable, Ivory-Tower personalities of the most Liberal Education of the Past will in NO way become the forefront of Change in the Future, no matter if the Devil and his army of Demons encamp against Civilization in open Threat to bring their Ivory-Towers into the dust. Mark my words.

        However, I am NOT so concerned about failed defenders of the General Welfare as I am about the avowed Enemies of the same. I have engaged these for 3 decades now, and have well prepared for Ragnarok…what remains yet is to Call upon those Heroes who yet sleep, sleep under the guise of their own Experience and Confidence to AWAKE to something OTHER, which they either had no Will nor Capacity to Understand.

        A comfortable Slavery is a Nice Thing. Prince among all the rest, and appointed to Train the rest into the kind of Prudent servants to a System, Hell-Bent upon abusing their Humanity. A proud service it may seem, to those who have taken advantage of their appointed privilege among the hoi polloi….simpletons to be Shepherded into the Fold of their own inevitable Captivity. How does THAT feal?….I’ve sometimes wondered, having been offered the same Office. I have NO idea…but I can say a Great Deal upon the OTHER side of the Equation…and Will.

      • Maybe “Samson Agonists” makes sense…in the Context. I think that Milton had it right…and Pope, in respect of the Sway of Modern Civilization. Devil in the details, slithering toward Bethlehem (Faith/Destinty/REASON) to be born.

  2. How is one to learn what other people think if we don’t hear it? This is why I read very conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer and George Will to see what their point of view is. I agree with Krauthammer about 5% of the time, but I still read him to make sure I am not missing a point.

    • Well said. George Will is sharp and worth reading as well. He was the one conservative who said publicly that if there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq than the U.S. had no moral grounds for the invasion!

  3. Great post, Hugh. But this … this is an abomination! They are turning institutions of higher learning into grade schools! The best classes I ever had were those where we discussed anything and everything freely and openly. And for students to expect to be given a grade despite not doing the work because they were to busy protesting God-only-knows-what … it just makes my blood boil! No wonder ours is turning into a society of lemmings! And I was really dumbfounded, though I admit I had to laugh, about 10% of college grads thinking Judge Judy was on the Supreme Court! What will happen to this world when people like us, people who received an actual education and learned to actually THINK, are gone??? Thanks for this post …. made me laugh, growl and think … 🙂

    • I am working on a post that seeks to understand the lemmings better. But I do think that our failed education system is at least a part of the problem. But I do wonder if the students were trying to be funny when they named Judge Judy to the Supreme Court, though the evidence of their breadth of ignorance suggests that they were not, sad to say.

      • I did a post a while back about the test for U.S. citizenship, and while I do not remember the exact statistics, some vast majority of U.S citizens … people born and educated in this country … who got some of the most basic questions wrong. I was dumbfounded.

        Good luck in your search to find what makes lemmings tick … I shall be eager to see what you find, because I have pondered this at some length and am more perplexed than ever. I finally concluded that perhaps it was better I not know. 🙂

      • Jill, you raise a good point. Teaching kids to think and analyze may have waned, but far too many in our country older than millennials don’t know very much about our country, much less other countries, and are easily swayed. As all three of us have written about before, we are one of the least informed countries in the first world. We don’t question sources of information and surveys and can be bamboozled by statistics when misused or displayed graphically to manipulate a point (scaling can show little change or much change). People are reading and believing this fake news, which is why they can sell ads.


  4. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    I meant to share this post by fellow blogger-buddy Hugh Curtler yesterday, but as sometimes happens, I got sidetracked. Hugh, an educator and philosopher, speaks to the current trend of what is happening with higher education in today’s world, and why are young people graduating from college without having learned the only thing worth learning: to think for themselves. It is an excellent post, and I hope you will take a few moments to read it … it provides much food for thought about what today’s colleges and universities are doing, and what they should be doing.

  5. A lot of the kids today where coddled as toddlers and given little trophies for everything they did. They could never loose. Now we had safe-zones and therapy doggies to console those fragile little cry baby millennials after they lost the election. Too bad when they get out of college they are in a mound of debt and slaves to their loan companies. I would like to see that change.

  6. Pingback: A Smart Pill????? | Filosofa's Word

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