Saturday, March 26, 2005

Limiting Academic Freedom in Florida

As we have seen, the right often cloaks attempts to limit rights in the guise of establishing them. Dennis Baxley, a member of the Florida House, has introduced a bill that, he claims, would establish certain rights for all students:
(1) Students have a right to expect a learning environment in which they will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, the fostering of a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose.

(2) Students have a right to expect that they will be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers and appropriate knowledge of the subjects they study and that they will not be discriminated against on the basis of their
political or religious beliefs.

(3) Students have a right to expect that their academic freedom and the quality of their education will not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.

(4) Students have a right to expect that freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and freedom of conscience of students and student organizations will not be infringed upon by postsecondary administrators, student government organizations, or institutional policies, rules, or procedures.

(5) Students have a right to expect that their academic institutions will distribute student fee funds on a viewpoint- neutral basis and will maintain a posture of neutrality with respect to substantive political and religious disagreements, differences, and opinions.

(6) Faculty and instructors have a right to academic freedom in the classroom in discussing their subjects, but they should make their students aware of serious scholarly viewpoints other than their own and should encourage intellectual honesty, civil debate, and critical analysis of ideas in the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

(7) Faculty and instructors have a right to expect that they will be hired, fired, promoted, and granted tenure on the basis of their competence and appropriate knowledge in their fields of expertise and will not be hired, fired, denied promotion, or denied tenure on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

(8) Faculty and instructors have a right to expect that they will not be excluded from tenure, search, or hiring committees on the basis of their political or religious beliefs.

(9) Students, faculty, and instructors have a right to be fully informed of their rights and their institution's grievance procedures for violations of academic freedom by means of notices prominently displayed in course catalogs and student handbooks and on the institutional website.

I wanted to post the whole thing here, so that discussion can be clear and fully informed. Some of this, of course, no one could object to—that is, until one starts to consider who would be guaranteeing these rights. And that would be the courts.

The idea of a judge deciding what is appropriate in a classroom is quite a scary one. For legitimate reasons, a courtroom must be carefully controlled. A classroom, on the other hand, has a quite different purpose, and one most judges are in no position to evaluate. Imagine a court trying to determine if an instructor “persistently introduce(d) controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose.” Judges tend to be lawyers, people whose business it is to pare things away, to get to the core of a particular. They want details, particulars—things relevant only to the issue at hand. In a class, on the other hand, the purpose is quite different. Often, it is to examine nuance, to see what connections may be there, and to broaden discussion. To move beyond the details of the particular to the universals involved. Could a judge, trained and expert at paring down cases to their essentials really be in a position to judge a methodology aimed towards movement in exactly the opposite direction? Controversy serves a pedagogical purpose quite removed from what is desired in a court of law. A debatable question is professor’s favorite, for it opens up possibilities for disagreement. A judge wants to end debate. In a classroom, agreement isn’t the goal; examination is. Final answers are not given nor are they desired.

There are many other problems inherent in this “Bill of Rights.”

Ultimately, if passed, it will kill academic freedom in Florida’s public universities by, among other things, bringing the courts directly into the classroom.

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