Friday, September 21, 2007

Why Wood Is Wrong

NAS head Peter Wood writes at InsideHigherEd about the AAUP report on politics in the classroom. Wood is wrong about the AAUP process. It’s completely normal for a report to be produced by a subcommittee and approved by Committee A as the voice of the AAUP without approval by the full membership in advance. Did the NAS response to the AAUP get the full approval of the NAS membership in advance? Of course not, and it’s a silly argument to make.

As for the report itself, Wood and the NAS have a lengthy rebuttal. Wood, like other conservatives, is fond of quoting one paragraph from the 1915 Statement about indoctrination. The 1915 Statement, overall, is a very good statement (online here). But it was flawed in its use of a vague term like indoctrination (it also includes the false view that professors’ statements in the classroom should be secret “privileged communications”). That's why the term was removed in the 1940 Statement and has never been used since, and why the University of California in 2003 updated its policy removing this term to the consternation of the NAS.

In fact, the AAUP's report this month probably shouldn't use the term "indoctrination" without explaining that charges of indoctrination should be dealt with by criticism, not regulation, because indoctrination is always in the eye of the beholder. Only a violation of student rights (unfair grading or a fundamental failure to teach the content of a class) should receive punishment from faculty committees reviewing the process.

Wood is correct that the AAUP’s conception of academic freedom has expanded since 1915 to include the freedom to express controversial political views. Yes, and that’s a good thing. It’s very disturbing that Wood urges colleges to “avoid assigning politically-charged books” to students. Nothing could be further from the real spirit of the AAUP, in 1915 or 2007, than this idea. (But the NAS does have a good idea for colleges to assign two politically-charged books as summer reading for students, and it would be interesting to imagine some worthy pairings for colleges to adopt.)

The NAS response contains this familiar complaint: "A survey published by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found 68 percent of students at the top 50 colleges and universities reported anti-Bush comments from their professors prior to the 2004 election. See" This is a lie (in fairness to NAS, it is a lie commonly repeated by ACTA, so perhaps NAS did not actually read the report). The ACTA report never asked students for what their professors said; it asked students to speculate on whether "some professors" on their campus had done this. Of course, some professors do criticize the government. In a free society, that's what should happen. Is it unprofessional sometimes? Sure. Should professors be investigated and punished for criticizing the government? Absolutely not. Yet the NAS thinks they should be "weeded from the professoriate" for any comment denouncing the government, regardless of the general quality of their work.

The NAS accuses the AAUP of using a "scare" word of government regulation: "Most state action is regulatory in nature and 'coercive' only in the sense that most people are law-abiding. We would settle for that." That's a really scary viewpoint that the government can regulate speech of professors because it's deemed politically offensive. And "institutional self-governance" is simply a call for administrators rather than legislators to violate academic freedom.

The NAS claims, "university faculties won the fight for academic freedom by invoking the authority of science and the rigorous search for truth." However, this model won only a very limited idea of academic freedom. The true victory for academic freedom came in the 1960s, when the AAUP won the fight for full academic freedom, including the right to extramural comments and controversial political statement.

According to the NAS, "The issue is that academic freedom requires academic responsibility. The AAUP firmly declared this in its original 1915 statement on academic freedom, and it remains true to this day. Neglect or abandonment of those responsibilities -- to seek the truth, to refrain from using the authority of an academic position to advocate on issues outside one's professional competence -- could lead to disaster." This is the coward's version of academic freedom--the belief that we must limit freedom to safe, conventional viewpoints in order to prevent some kind of political backlash that might destroy all academic freedom. It's also disingenuous, since the NAS is one of the conservative groups urging political forces to step in and start destroying academic freedom, ostensibly in order to save it.

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