Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

The Authoritarian Model of Academic Freedom


The more I think about Judge Esterbrook’s opinion in Mayer v. Monroe County Community School Corporation (I blogged about this case Friday), the more unhappy I become. At first glance, a decision that upholds a school board’s action against a teacher who used her classroom as a platform for her anti-war views seems like a blow against indoctrination and propagandizing in the classroom. In reality, however, the Court merely holds that it is the school board, not the teacher, that has the right to indoctrinate and propagandize. In other words, the “freedoms” all rest with the highest level of authority, and teachers are merely the expressive pawns who hire out their talents to the controlling entity.  

So Judge Easterbrook is not saying, “no right to off-topic propagandizing.” He’s really saying, “no propaganda but school board propaganda.” To call this hostile to the foundational principles of true academic freedom would be a serious understatement. “Academic freedom” as a concept was not born for the purpose of advancing government viewpoints. Instead, it exists to protect the right to challenge that viewpoint — to challenge conventional wisdom. It exists to preserve the pursuit of truth (which requires a marketplace of ideas), not for the purpose of advancing government-conceived truth.

I understand that students at public schools (and to a lesser extent, students in required courses at public universities) represent a “captive audience.” I also understand that there can be (and is) real harm to the educational process when teachers  depart from the curriculum to engage in blatant political or ideological advocacy. After all, our failing schools are hardly helped when teachers divert class time for the purpose of creating young activists. Yet those facts argue for viewpoint-neutral rules that bind everyone — not just teachers. For example, neither teachers nor administrators should be endorsing political candidates on state time, nor should they be endorsing or opposing specific legislation.  But the Mayer case would theoretically allow a school to divert resources for explicitly political purposes, so long as the school board were in charge. The case is anything but viewpoint neutral. Instead, it presents the worst possible outcome — impairing the rights of dissent at the same time that it explicitly allows government indoctrination.


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