Recently, in my History of North Carolina post 1865 class we have been talking a lot about how principles of academic freedom developed at UNC-CH.
Within the context of events like the speaker-ban law and controversies over who should be allowed to speak at the university about topics like communism and evolution, we’ve talked a lot about how crucial the exposure to many view points is to the creation of an academically rigorous culture and students capable of evaluating different perspectives.
It is difficult to imagine a UNC devoid of academic freedom, where the struggle for it has played out historically and been reaffirmed even amid much controversy.
But what is this vague “academic freedom?” This is not an exhaustive definition, but Britainnica defines it as:
“the freedom of teachers and students to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure. Its basic elements include the freedom of teachers to inquire into any subject that evokes their intellectual concern; to present their findings to their students, colleagues, and others; to publish their data and conclusions without control or censorship; and to teach in the manner they consider professionally appropriate. For students, the basic elements include the freedom to study subjects that concern them and to form conclusions for themselves and express their opinions.”
While it is fairly easy for me to see evidence of academic freedom here at UNC, I struggle to envision it within the other public schools (elementary through high school) that I have attended.
Within graded public education, teachers are given outlined curriculum that they must stick to, and some even have to teach from scripts. Incidents in which teachers allow for free reads and provide adequate resources in which students have a meaningful choice for their free read are present, but rare. These limitations are often exacerbated lower SES neighborhoods and schools.
Whereas my experience at UNC has encouraged me to explore ideas and issues even when controversial, I see how “law, institutional regulation,” and “public pressure” define, rather precisely, what can and should be taught in public schools.
In states like Oklahoma, where the teaching of AP US History may be banned by law, for being too critical of American History. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, expained that “the big problem overall is this issue of people’s willingness to let teachers explore the complexities of history, to recognize that what you want students to learn is historical thinking, and to see the complexity that makes history more than a simple story.”
This is an issue of academic freedom, of allowing students the freedom to explore issues in ways that advance truth, even when that truth is uncomfortable. Further, this issue puts the question on the table for us to decide when and where should academic freedom be present.
What does academic freedom mean to you? Why is it beneficial? When is it harmful? Should teachers be granted more of it? At what levels should students expect academic freedom as a right?