Monday, April 14, 2008

Academic Freedom

I saw this today on the Monroe News Star web site:

Legislature debates science's say in the classroom

Of course, my interest was peaked by this article - I despise Intelligent Design, not because of what the basic idea is (essentially, creationism), but that it goes under the guise of being even remotely scientifically based. What the Ouachita Parish School Board actually proposed, however, is not quite what the article purports it to be:

Ouachita Parish Science Curriculum

What's my problem with it, then? Well, it references that "[t]he District shall endeavor to create an environment within the schools that encourages students to explore scientific questions, learn about scientific evidence, develop critical thinking skills, and respond appropriately to differences of opinion about controversial issues." Fine. It also says, "THEREFORE, the Board of Education of Ouachita Parish School District adopts the following policy and directs that it be inserted in the District’s listing of curriculum and instruction policies which is posted online at" The problem is that this does not actually say anything at all about what exactly the board will do to create an environment to explore scientific questions. What are the criteria, and what can and can't teachers do? This all may be entirely innoculous, but it seems like a ploy to appear transparent without actually BEING transparent about the policies.

Ultimately this got me thinking about what academic freedom is. I consider myself to be a proponent of academic freedom, and yet at the same time I've seen teachers (albeit just a few) give factually incorrect information to their students, be it either through blind belief or a desire that, regardless of what most people believe, that his or her viewpoint is the correct one and should be taught. This is where I have an issue. Academic freedom is not the same thing as freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is an inaleniable human right - academic freedom is the freedom to question, by both faculty and students, ideas and theories. It is not, however, an inaleniable human right nor does it mean that you can blindly ignore one idea or theory for another. When academic freedom is practiced by teachers, they are not just affecting themselves, but the children they teach, who themselves are expected to learn as fact what is being taught to them.

Academic freedom should have different meanings based on the level it is being practiced - the academic freedom in a graduate-level college class should not be the same as the academic freedom in a first grade class. This is not to say that it should be absent - rather, there are certain things that should be taught as facts rather than theories early on which can be questioned later when a child has a greater ability to understand the nuances of questioning. And teachers, being accountable for walking this thin line, need a clear guideline of what is expected of them that takes into account the age of the children they teach. Ouachita Parish appears to not have a clear guideline based on what can be seen on their website - if they do, it is certainly not something that is publicly exposed. And therein lies the problem - I think that nobody wants to clearly outline what is and what is not acceptable because that is when people develop hard-line stances supporting or opposing it.

And so we are left with a nebulous statement that merely says we should do something, but not what that something is, how that something should be done, or when it should be done. It is a statement "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" and would have best been left unsaid.

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