Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Racism and Free Speech: Part III

The Southern Poverty Law Center’s online Intelligence Report has a recent article on the topic of academic freedom and racism in the college classroom. The article can be found at this link: http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=754

Academic freedom is critical for the advancement of knowledge and understanding. Scholars in the sciences, humanities, and arts have to know that their research, writing, and teaching pursuits will not be infringed because of political expediency, corporate interest, or the whim of public opinion.

There are limits to academic freedom. Many academic disciplines and programs have curriculum elements that are prescribed. For example, when I teach a course like “Introduction to Anthropology,” there are certain topics that I am expected to teach. Technically, this abridges my free action in that I have to teach these topics. This is not a bad thing, and my freedom to pursue my research and writing is not infringed upon. Nor for that matter is my freedom to have a perspective on the topics I teach in that course abridged – and I have any number of ways available to go about teaching about human evolution, language, human culture, etc.

Another limit to academic freedom in the classroom has to do with truth, or more precisely with untruth. There is a reasonable expectation on the part of students and the public (including other faculty) that a teaching professor is knowledgeable about the topic they are teaching and that they present the facts of the topic in an accurate manner.

Ideally, people should be knowledgeable about matters that they hold forth about. As the B-52s song “Mesopotamia” says, “Before I speak, I should read a book.” Still, in general people should be free to express whatever the like, even the nonsensical or offensive. And when people say offensive things, others should freely express their offense. As I wrote in my previous post, for example, I’m against both Holocaust Denial and Holocaust Denial laws.

The classroom is different though. Again, there’s a reasonable assumption that what a professor says is accurate and based on expertise. When a professor presents information which is manifestly untrue as if it were true, they’re not just expressing themselves. They’re actively causing harm to the education of their students. In that context, it’s entirely reasonable to restrict things like Holocaust Denial or the presentation of other racist untruth as established fact.

At the same time, I’m wary of formulating restrictions on academic freedom in general. There are too many people who’d like to influence academics’ freedom under the guise of protecting “truth” or “balance” or “academic freedom.” One example: a couple years ago, in the Florida state legislature a bill was introduced (thankfully, it didn’t pass) that would have required balance in the teaching of human origins, the clear and fairly explicit goal of which was to force professors to teach creationism alongside evolution in the guise of protecting students’ academic freedom and scientific debate about truth.

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