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Navigating Different Perspectives inside the Classroom

The American Council on Education (in collaboration with Pen America) recently issued an interesting report, Making the Case for Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy in a Challenging Political Environment.

The motivation for the report was the several-year experience of state governments attempting to limit the activities on college campuses on topics such as race, American history, etc. Many of these involve direct intervention into the governance processes of universities. Some introduced punishments for violations of the state government directives, including loss of state funding or dismissal of staff. The interventions at the K-12 level in some states have been even more direct and harsh.

As of yet, private institutions have not experienced similar incidents, but the issues provoked by the state legislatures for state institutions force reflection on the basic principles of the academy. For example, the report cites a 1940 statement of principles by the American Association of University Professors:
“Institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression.”

A 1957 Supreme Court case is cited, in Frankfurter’s opinion: “the four essential freedoms’ of a university – to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study.” (Sweezy vs. New Hampshire)

The report calls for redoubling efforts to support academic freedom, the right of the instructor to determine the content of their class. At the same time, students of all beliefs and opinions must feel free to express their beliefs as their own contribution to the search for truth. And students must be active participants to supporting an environment that supports interchange of alternative views.

Some of the state government actions are attempting to reduce the presentation of “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Yet a fundamental duty of faculty and universities writ large is to offer an environment in which alternative, conflicting perspectives on human understanding and valid knowledge are freely presented. It is a corollary of such environments that each of us experiences uncomfortable moments when our beliefs are challenged by different perspectives. Sometimes, these different perspectives, to our initial surprise, are closer to the truth than our original beliefs. This discomfort, leading to a deeper, richer insight is an essential ingredient in learning.

Learning, almost always, involves discomfort because new knowledge must be assessed relative to what one previously understood. When there are conflicts between new and old, within our own mind, significant cognitive effort is involved in synthesize the two.

The ACE report notes: ”College students are adults who should be exposed to all topics on campus, including controversial and contentious ideas presented in an intellectually rigorous way that encourages discourse.” It notes that this is essential to the mission of educating students in critical review of new ideas. Indeed, knowing the key arguments against one’s view of a topic is the best way to determine how to defend that view. It notes that under academic freedom, faculty are given the main decision-making responsibilities for shaping curricula.

While private universities do not face the same external attempts to limit what is taught in the classroom, some internal pressures might become equivalent to them. The free exchange of ideas is the unique responsibility of academia. It is our way of deepening understanding and insight. That is the only route to coming closer to the truth. Faculty must assist students in learning how to build skills in this exchange of ideas, and they must have the freedom to use their expertise to do this.

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Office of the ProvostBox 571014 650 ICC37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057Phone: (202) 687.6400Fax: (202)

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