Benno Schmidt on Academic Freedom

Prompted by the outcry over criticism of pop-left historian Howard Zinn by then-governor Mitch Daniels, Benno Schmidt (the President of Yale University when I was an undergraduate), wrote a good op-ed on the issue of academic freedom.  Here’s a taste:

Academic freedom is faculty’s freedom to teach. But, more important, it is also students’ freedom to learn. It is, as University of Wisconsin Prof. Donald Downs writes in the American Council of Trustees and Alumni guidebook, “Free to Teach, Free to Learn”: “the right to pursue the truth in scholarship and teaching, and to enjoy authority regarding such academic matters as the nature of the curriculum, [and] faculty governance.” At the same time, it is “maintaining respect for the truth (which means avoiding bias in its various forms), exercising professional and fair judgment, and maintaining professional competence.”

In other words: Academic freedom is a right and a responsibility. In recent times, the academy has too often been focused on rights and privileges rather than responsibility and accountability. . . .

Politicians can’t dictate course syllabi or reading lists in higher education. But nor should faculty be allowed to engage in indoctrination and professional irresponsibility without being held to account. And yet, over the past 50 years, that is essentially what has happened. The greatest threat to academic freedom today is not from outside the academy, but from within. Political correctness and “speech codes” that stifle debate are common on America’s campuses. The assumption seems to be that the purpose of education is to induce correct opinion rather than to search for wisdom and to liberate the mind.

If academics want to continue to enjoy the great privilege of academic freedom, they cannot forget the obligations that underline the grant of that privilege. The American Association of University Professors itself recognized those obligations in its seminal statement, the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom, which is today nearly forgotten: “If this profession should prove itself unwilling to purge its ranks of the incompetent and unworthy, or to prevent the freedom which it claims . . . from being used as a shelter for inefficiency, for superficiality, or for uncritical and intemperate partisanship, it is certain that the task will be performed by others.”

As for Daniels, he apparently sought to prevent teachers from assigning Zinn’s work in grades K-12.  Said Daniels “the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all. I merely wanted to make certain that Howard Zinn’s textbook, which represents a falsified version of history, was not being foisted upon our young people in Indiana’s public K-12 classrooms.”  Prominent historians have criticized the  ideological slant (and inaccuracy) of Zinn’s work.  Others have come to Zinn’s defense.