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Freedom Limited by Loyalty to Existing Institutions


by Archibald E. Stevenson - 1936

THE bitter controversies which have arisen even among educators themselves over academic freedom show that this subject is one which should be more clearly defined. No one denies that real social and economic progress can be made only through the constant increase of human knowledge. The pursuit of new ideas, the testing of new facts, the persistent exploration of the frontiers of established things--these make for advancement.

THE bitter controversies which have arisen even among educators themselves over academic freedom show that this subject is one which should be more clearly defined.


No one denies that real social and economic progress can be made only through the constant increase of human knowledge.  The pursuit of new ideas, the testing of new facts, the persistent exploration of the frontiers of established things--these make for advancement.  Schools, colleges, and universities, in varying degrees, are the bases from which these excursions toward the unknown must set out.  Teachers and professors are the appropriate leaders of such exploring parties.  They must gather facts.  They should report honestly upon them and they ought to interpret their findings wisely.


Obviously, these things cannot be done if teachers or professors are restrained by their own or their employers' preconceived prejudices; if they are fettered by fixed ideas or frightened by new ones.  It follows, therefore, that they must be free to carry on researches, free to describe results, and free to apply these to the solution of current problems.


This, then, is the justification for academic freedom.  Such freedom is and must be extended to every sincere and honest teacher if there is to be any advancement in learning.


THE TEACHER'S OBLIGATION TO THE STATE


But academic freedom, like civil liberty, must have its limitations.  These, at first sight, are difficult to define, though nonetheless real and necessary.  Academic freedom is not a legal right like civil liberty.  It is a privilege recognized as an essential factor in any efficient educational system.  We insist upon granting it to the teacher, not for his own sake, but rather in our own interest so that society as a whole may profit from the findings of scholarly research.  Academic freedom is much narrower than civil liberty for it is complicated by many interests.


The freedom of the teacher or professor must necessarily be affected by the grade, character, and purpose of the educational institution, which employs him.  It is, in a measure, modified by the objects and desires of his pupils and their parents; and, last but not least, it is charged with a public interest.


Since academic freedom must necessarily have limits, we should, in order to avoid misunderstandings, adopt some reasonable criterion for fixing its boundaries.


No one, I believe, seriously asserts that the signing of a contract of employment gives to a teacher or professor the right to teach when he pleases, how he pleases, or what he pleases.  Acceptance of such employment necessarily implies a voluntary surrender on the part of the teacher of certain rights he might otherwise enjoy as a citizen.  This is true of any contract.


These self-imposed restrictions differ somewhat in public and private educational institutions.  The public system of education has been established as a measure of self-defense by democratic government.  It is designed to teach the rising generation not only its rights but also its duties to the government under which it lives.  For this reason, we have compulsory attendance laws and public schools are maintained by public taxation.


It follows, therefore, that the teacher in a public school, by virtue of his employment, is obligated, among other things, to train his pupils to be loyal to the government that employs him.  That is to say, loyal to the government which the people themselves have established and which the great majority of them are determined to maintain.  This obligation does not prevent the teacher from impartially discussing proposals for orderly changes in the structure of our Government or of the social order.  Our constitutions, both Federal and State, contemplate, through their amending clauses, such changes whenever the public welfare demands them and the people themselves have agreed to them.


THE RIGHTS OF STUDENTS


It would seem, however, that a decent regard for proprieties would prevent a teacher or professor from forcing his personal views upon the pupils who are placed under his influence by compulsory attendance laws.  He should be justly condemned if he seeks to use his position in the interests of any political party or seeks converts to any particular religious denomination or sect.  Similar considerations should hold in check professors in higher institutions of learning supported by government funds.  These institutions also are established in the public interest.


In the Statement of Principles of Academic Freedom, published not long ago by the American Civil Liberties Union, compulsory Bible-reading in public schools "except in courses on comparative religion and comparative literature" is characterized as a violation of civil liberty because it compels minorities among the students to listen to the teaching of religious beliefs in which they do not share.  Here is a recognition that academic freedom is curtailed by the rights of pupils.  This being true in respect of religion, how much greater violation is it of the civil rights of a majority of the students to compel them to listen to the teaching of political and economic programs which are antagonistic to the American form of government and which may be bitterly opposed by that majority of the students and their parents?


Academic freedom, therefore, must reach its limits at the point where it violates the civil liberties of the students and their parents or defeats the purpose for which the school system has been established.  If a teacher on his own motion does not recognize such limitations, it clearly becomes the duty of those who employ him to bring him to account and, if necessary, remove him from the system.


The same principles are applicable to private institutions engaged in elementary and secondary education.  These of necessity occupy a position equivalent to the public schools.  They also must train their pupils to be loyal to our Government.  If they fail to do so, the law provides that receiving instruction in such schools shall not be deemed equivalent to public school attendance.


The situation is somewhat different in private institutions of higher education.  In them such limitations upon academic freedom as may exist depend upon the purposes for which such institutions are maintained.  But even there, although a far greater latitude is, of course, permissible, academic freedom does not in this country allow the teaching of the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by force and violence or that the general strike should be employed as a means of constitutional amendment.


These things should be self-evident.  Unfortunately, however, in recent years an increasing number of persons have been admitted to the teaching profession who lack a true sense of the trust they have assumed; who employ their classroom as a forum for propaganda rather than instruction; and who claim the right to spread their political and economic views at some other person's expense.  This is not the exercise of academic freedom.  It is simply an abuse of trust.


                                                                                                                                      





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 2 Number 6, 1936, p. 169-170
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13275, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 11:05:07 AM

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  • Archibald Stevenson


 
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