Academic freedom in public education is a very important topic that cuts to the heart of whether or not an education system promotes a free and fair application of knowledge to its students. Some argue that academic freedom is important in order to help create citizens with a strong basic education, yet critics maintain that academic freedom in schools must be limited in order to prevent contamination of students with incorrect, explicit, or controversial material. This sample research paper from Ultius outlines the arguments for and against academic freedom in schools and focuses on the case study of Portland’s public school policy for much of its analysis.
The extent to which academic freedom should exist in our public schools is a social problem which is heavily debated by school administrators, teachers and parents. The issue has been discussed for many decades however it is still a topic of controversy and debate for many educators. Academic freedom is an important topic as it shapes the way in which our education system teaches our children. It is also an important topic in higher education as this creates the future generation of professionals who will shape our society.
Proponents of academic freedom argue that our first amendment rights allow for the freedom for teachers to be able to teach with any materials they need. They argue that academic freedom is necessary to build critical thinking skills and to create well-rounded individuals and scholars. Critics argue that materials need to be closely monitored and if needed censored to ensure that our children are not exposed to controversial or explicit material. The Portland public school policy of “6.20.010-P Academic Freedom” is an example of how a policy has been created in order to solve the social problem of academic freedom versus academic censorship in our public school systems.
What is the purpose of a university?
Portland school district’s policy on academic freedom is not the first of its kind and is not unique as many other public schools use the same policy on the subject of academic freedom in their schools. According to Schauer, the American Association of University Professors was created to promote and protect academic freedom. The association created its statement of academic principles which gave teachers the freedom to teach on any subject they chose. The association cautioned against teaching controversial subjects that were not relevant to the subject matter.
The association was created to protect teachers in the 1800’s who were being accused of creating unions and teaching socialist ideas. Due to the persecution of teachers who were feared to be creating dissent, it was determined that there was a lack of academic freedom and laws needed to be created to protect these teachers and to promote academic freedom.
The limitations of academic freedom are also present in the censorship and banning of academic material specifically in libraries. Books have recently been banned, not for promoting socialist ideals, but for their content which some administrators believe to be obscene or if they have received complaints from parents. The laws regarding censorship in schools have been on the side of school officials rather than on the side of academic freedom.
“Today, Hazelwood school district v. Kuhlmeier (1988) is regarded as the benchmark of legal doctrine toward school and library censorship. It appears to have established a greater authority for school officials to control the content of the curriculum” (Greenwood, 76).
This law, invoking the protection of the 1st amendment in the Bill of Rights, shaped the future policies of schools as they follow the principle that school administrators will have the final say in the school curriculum and materials taught in the classroom. This control limits academic freedom.
Banned books’ effect on academic freedom
This control continues to this day as policies such as “6.20.010-P Academic Freedom” provide limited academic freedom while school administrators continue to have most of the control regarding what is taught and what subjects are banned. If school administrators do not take into account the needs of students, full academic freedom cannot exist. Without academic freedom in our education system, students lose out on valuable materials as evidenced by the censorship of books in schools and libraries. Many books with valuable learning lessons have been placed on a challenged or banned list by the American Libraries Association.
Banned or challenged books are permitted for use in course curriculum for one week out of the entire school year (Banned Book Week). Many of the books placed on the banned books list represent values and shifting viewpoints more reliable with individual Americans. By having access to books that are banned or challenged in public school libraries, more American youth will identify with the American value of equality and have proof that America is an all-inclusive nation with diverse values.
Impact on higher education
The issue of academic freedom is not just limited to public schools as higher education is also affected by censorship. By limiting the courses taught in higher education colleges are producing students who are only exposed to limited subject matter. However, academic freedom is broader in higher education as scholars fight for their academic freedoms vigorously and will advocate for their rights more so than public school officials might.
“Most American constitutionalists, who are also academics to be sure, would argue that there is a constitutional right to academic freedom and would agree that the right exists in, around, or at least near, the First Amendment” (Schauer p.1).
Scholars consider the issue of academic freedom just as important as the freedom of speech protected by the 1st amendment. Therefore, limiting academic freedom can be seen as limiting our rights to free speech which is at the heart of American values.
Victims of impeded academic freedom
The issue of academic freedom affects a great many people. It is an issue which strikes at the core of our educational system which creates the future professionals who will eventually shape the course of our nation. Some of those affected include:
- Students — If these students are exposed to only those materials that are not controversial they will leave the educational system with limited knowledge and lack the views that a diverse educational system can offer them.
- Teachers and professors — Educators have to deal with not being able to teach a subject to its full depth due to the restrictions placed on them by school administrators.
- Scholars and researchers — Academic freedom limits funding for controversial issues or subjects that are not taught widely in schools.
Academic freedom as a social problem
The issue of academic freedom became a social problem when these freedoms were infringed upon. The early crusade of limiting socialist agendas turned into parents complaining about the teaching of obscene material to their children. Books have been banned in schools for the use of profanity or racial slurs or their use of sexuality, drug references or even references to death. Some of these titles include:
While these issues may seem that they need to be hidden from students, the works that have been banned are great works of literature which are widely considered essential novels that every student should read. To meet the demands of parents and ensure that schools would not face legal ramifications school administrators began controlling the curriculum of schools and determining what should be included and what should be excluded from the material that is being taught in the classrooms. This led to the exclusion of student voices in the subject they are taught and rigid guidelines to allow changes to school curriculum.
“6.20.010-P Academic Freedom” policy
“6.20.010-P Academic Freedom” is a policy designed to promote academic freedom in the classroom. It gives the freedom to the teacher to teach about topics that are relevant to the child’s education even if the topics are of a controversial nature. However, the policy also stipulates that
“the teacher should strive by the use of additional resources to present a fair balance of ideas so that the students have full opportunity to investigate and consider various positions and to draw informed conclusions” (2002).
This implies that a teacher can only teach a topic by also presenting an alternate viewpoint so as to be fair and balanced. This could result in the teaching of topics which are inaccurate for the sake of being unbiased such as teaching creationism to counter the teaching of evolution in schools.“6.20.010-P Academic Freedom” is a policy that represents the attempt of school administrators to demonstrate that they support academic freedom and allow students to receive a diverse education. The policy directly affects students, teachers and their parents.
The policy makes it so that the teacher is the sole individual who is in charge of ensuring that their students receive a well-rounded education. The policy does allow teachers to teach controversial subjects. The policy provides safeguards against parents who may oppose certain teachings by allowing students to participate in an independent study.
“Moreover, when in the judgment of a student or parent, a student or their family has deep-seated moral or religious beliefs which make an item in the instructional program objectionable or offensive, the student may be permitted to engage in alternative study, including alternate reading materials” (PPS, 2002).
By including this section, the policy also appears to give students the academic freedom to study any topic of their choosing as it allows for independent study. However, the policy does not allow for schools to fund this independent study as students have to utilize their own resources and also have to seek the permission of their parents to participate which also limits the actual independent nature of the study. This policy is implemented by the school district and is overseen by the county.
- The short-term goals of the policy allow controversial subjects to be taught without the ramifications of parent complaint or lawsuits.
- The long-term results of the policy serve to create an academic environment which is diverse and rich in information as it allows for controversial subjects to be taught.
Although the policy is designed to expand academic freedom it could serve to actually limit academic freedom. By not giving students the choice to make a decision about their curriculum it does not allow for full academic freedom.
Subjects of their choosing — The core of academic freedom
The policy is deemed to be effective if teachers have the freedom to teach subjects of their choosing. The effectiveness of the policy can be difficult to measure quantitatively as freedom is a difficult concept to measure. The school district could measure the effectiveness of the policy by keeping track of a number of complaints received from parents regarding the materials which are taught. If the number of complaints regarding the curriculum is low it could be determined that the policy is effective.
The policy also serves to create a better quality of life for students as it serves to create a rich academic environment. The policy also makes it so that the students who go to this school will receive a better education than a student who attends a school which limits academic freedom which will allow these students to be more competitive in college. This will lead to better job opportunities and better life outcomes.
Purpose of the policy as it pertains to academic freedom
The policy is funded by the school district and receives the same funding other educational programs receive. Although the policy does not need funding separate from the resources already provided by the school. The additional expenses may be needed for materials that were not present in schools such as books that may have been banned by parents or by school administrators and officials. The policy is intended to be in existence for as long as the school continues to exist.
A law which bans controversial material could be the only way in which the policy could end in the Portland school system and is largely a construct of Portland politics. The knowledge base for the creation of the policy comes from the scholars who have argued for academic freedom and have served to protect the academic freedoms of all students in the country. These academics believe that this freedom is just as important as freedom of speech and conduct the research will allow the policy to exist.
A social policy at its core
Social work strives to provide client-centered practice which strives to empower the clients:
- The goals of the policy are consistent in a way with the values of social work as social work strives to promote equality and the policy appears to promote educational equality. By ensuring that students are receiving a valuable and beneficial education the policy creates individuals who will contribute to our society. This human-centered view of the policy could be seen as tied to social work.
- The policy could also be seen as not being consistent with the values of social work as the policy is not centered around the families and students that it is supposed to serve.
This policy serves to protect teachers and school administrators rather than empower students. As the students cannot make decisions about their curriculum and what they are taught in school the policy is not student centered and strives to limit their abilities control their education. By allowing students to make decisions about their education they would be empowered.
The short reach of 6.20.010-P in academic freedom
The policy does not seem equitable as it appears to just serve the interests of teachers and school administrators. Students and parents are left to seek alternate study if they do not like the subjects taught by the school. The policy also does not allow students to make their own decisions or contributions to the curriculum. The policy does serve to create social equality by ensuring that students in public schools receive the same education that a child in the private school may as a public school may have a policy limiting academic freedom while a private school may have no such limitations.
This would result in more well-rounded students coming from private schools while those leaving the public schools leave with a limited education. This would lead to the well-rounded students gaining better jobs and earning more money. The policy would then affect the redistribution of income to those with better educations.
While the policy claims to advocate for and support academic freedom, it does not appear to be put into full use as evidenced by a press release from Occupy Portland who claims that the school district shut down the panel despite the policy which allows for academic freedom. The panel strived to educate students regarding the way budget cuts have affected their education. The goal of the panel was to demonstrate how the schools were losing millions while wall street was given bailouts. The panel was shut down by teachers who reported that the school district was not comfortable with the discussion. Occupy Portland stated that
“educating children about their rights is an important part of teaching good citizenship. The non-partisan message of the Occupy Movement does not represent lobbying activity or endorse candidates. Occupy seeks social and economic justice to address these well-documented inequalities” (2011).
The goal of the panel appeared to be more attuned to the values of social work and academic freedom. While the school district limiting the panel’s discussion demonstrated that they were not in fact proponents of academic freedom. This discredits not only the efficacy of the policy but also implies that the policy was not in fact designed to increase academic freedom but that its goals are to protect schools.
In order to increase academic freedom, the policy should be changed so as to be more attuned to social work values and to actually be able to promote social work values. The policy could be changed to allow students to choose the curriculum and reading materials. The policy could also explicitly state in the policy that the school will financially back libraries to increase book availability of even controversial materials. By taking these actual steps to increase academic freedom the school could actually increase academic freedom rather than limiting the choices of its students and their parents.
Burress, Lee. (1989). Battle of the Books: Literary Censorship in the Public Schools, 1950-1985. British Catalouging. USA.
Foerstahl, Herbert. (2002). Banned in the USA A Reference Guide to Book Censorship in School and Public Libraries Revised and Expanded Edition. Greenwood, NY.
Occupy Portland. (2011). Portland Public Schools Shutdown Occupy Portland Panel. [Press release]. Portland School District. (2002). 6.20.010-P Academic Freedom. Portland, OR.
Schauer, Frederick. (2006). “Is there a Right to Academic Freedom” 206. University of Colorado.