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Limitations upon Academic Freedom for Public School Teachers

by William H. Kilpatrick - 1935

This article discusses the question of the freedom of teaching and study in our American public schools.

IN THE history of civilization it was Socrates who first brought before the world the clear issue of freedom of teaching. In his old age he was accused of "corrupting the youth" and of "neglecting the gods." From that day to this, however, by common consent mankind has condemned his accusers and freed Socrates. No sensitive person can read unmoved the account of that last prison day on which he drank the hemlock—a true martyr to the best that mankind knows, the desire to make the youth of his city more intelligent in their thinking about duty and country.

How Socrates was right and his accusers wrong we can now understand perhaps even better than did Socrates himself. The Greek people, in a period of rapid change somewhat like our own, had outgrown their mythological gods as well as their traditional thinking on many other points, but not all of them were yet ready to admit this even to themselves. Many, for example, ridiculed the new opinion that the clouds rather than Zeus bring rain. It was, as I have said, a period of pronounced change bordering on social and political chaos. What Socrates did was to lead the Athenians, young and old, to think—to examine afresh their old ideas—that they might have a surer basis on which to found their social and ethical conduct. It is interesting to our further discussion that Socrates seldom told his hearers what he thought. He mostly asked questions to make others think.


We are concerned here with the question of the freedom of teaching and study in our American public schools. To answer as to what, if any, limitations there should be upon such freedom, we must first see why this academic freedom is desirable. What good does it do to have study and teaching free? Free how? And for what purpose?

The answer seems to lie along two lines, first as to how a changing civilization requires questioning and critical thinking to face its problems as is not—in the same degree—true for an unchanging civilization, and second how teaching in a changing and democratic civilization, if it is to be good, has a necessary quality of freedom different from teaching either in an unchanging or in an undemocratic civilization. These two lines I propose now to discuss.

First, as to the questioning and critical thinking required in a changing civilization. When social changes come, they do not come evenly. Some outrun others. Just now our machines and other inventions change very rapidly, but our actual morals seem disorganized and moral conduct falls in many respects behind the demand. Also our economic and political arrangements, made for an earlier day, seem inadequate to present needs. In other words, when social change is uneven, the social balance gets upset. Some parts lag behind others. New difficulties and new problems then necessarily arise, as we realized only too well during the last six years. Upon such changes there will follow many new proposals for dealing with new difficulties. When these things happen, it takes thinking, the best thinking the country can muster, to decide what to do. And many of us fear that decision and action may take place without the best kind of thinking. It thus appears that a changing civilization is prolific of new difficulties and new problems. And the new problems bring new call for new thinking—all in greater degree than is true for an unchanging or a slow-changing civilization.

How does democracy get into this picture? Let me say at this point that I am not among those who question democracy. On the contrary I believe in it most fundamentally. Only I wish an honest and thoroughgoing democracy, one that means to do the very best possible for each one of all in our midst, one that means to use experts more widely than hitherto but is determined to keep final control forever in the hands of the people as a whole. It is then at once clear that the people themselves must make the decisions as the country faces its new difficulties. And if the people are to decide well, they must think well. It is, of course, quite different in Italy and Russia and Germany, There the people need not think, for they do not decide. Here the people are to decide. The next question therefore is*, how can we, the people, bring it about that we decide intelligently?

It is here that education enters. Not an education from the top down, where some few in authority determine what the others are to think and then call upon schools and newspapers and radio and pictures to teach the masses what has thus been decided. No, that is not democracy and it is not education. Instead of being democracy it is autocracy and oligarchy, as we see now in Italy, Germany, and Russia. And instead of being education, it is propaganda and indoctrination. A democratic education aims to make the people better and better able to think and decide for themselves.

There are, of course, some among us who are at heart not democratic and say that most people cannot think anyhow. These would leave thinking to experts or perhaps rather to Chambers of Commerce and the lawyers whom they hire. For my part, I accept no such doctrine. I believe that the large majority of people are quite capable of coming to understand on which side any important piece of bread is buttered. What is needed is that the particular matter be sufficiently considered. If there is a right side to any public question, that side will in the long run be found out if only we keep at it persistently enough.

But if the people are thus to think and decide intelligently on social and economic and political matters, they cannot wait till they are twenty-one years of age to begin on this thinking. If they do wait, they are in great danger of having learned, more or less definitely, not to think freshly about such problems. In fact, the chances are that their minds will have been by that time largely closed to any sort of real thinking. They will probably believe in the old, and count that to question it is wrong. In so far as these things do happen, the people will be unready and unable to think adequately about the new social problems that are bound to come up.

The schools then must take a definite part in starting our citizens off on the process of becoming socially intelligent. If as citizens our young people are later to face unsettled and controversial issues, they must begin early to work at unsettled and controversial issues. Merely to study past and now settled problems is no adequate preparation for dealing with live and unsettled problems. I must insist on this, because many people do not so understand it. These think of a school as a place that tells pupils and students what to think. No good democratic school can do that. Such would be, as stated earlier, neither good democracy nor good teaching. What we wish is that the young people shall build, each for himself, an effective social intelligence by working at live-issue social problems, so that they may accumulate and organize knowledge on the one hand and methods of study and attack on the other. For the teacher to tell "the answers" is bad teaching. It fails to build intelligence. It is in fact propaganda and indoctrination, not preparation for independent democratic thinking.

This then is the argument for free study and free teaching in democratic schools. Our times are changing. New problems arise. Appropriate new laws and other institutional changes must from time to time be made. In a democracy, the people have to decide. To decide wisely they must be socially intelligent. For citizens to be adequately intelligent our schools must begin with the young to make them more and more socially intelligent as they grow older. To do this well the schools must deal with current controversial issues, not in order to tell the pupils what side to take, but to see that they learn how to deal with such issues. No question that the pupils and students feel as a question should be excluded, nor any question that good social teaching holds to lie within the proper range of pupil social study. In this sense and degree study and teaching should be free.


Now, many questions will arise in connection with this argument. Some of these we can here take up.

1. Is this a proper program for our public schools? Should pupils be permitted to question our social and governmental arrangements and institutions that have come down to us from the past?

Answer. If pupils raise a question, it should be considered at their level on its merits. Otherwise, we are not trying to make them democratically and intelligently self-directing. Thomas Jefferson said of the University of Virginia, "This institution will be based upon the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate error as long as reason is left free to combat it." What was true there for the older students holds elsewhere on a smaller scale for younger students or pupils. We are after making each age level intelligent for that level.

2. Should not the state course of study decide for teachers what they are to teach pupils? Have teachers any right to teach anything else?

Answer. The state has no moral or democratic right to decide that either side of a present controversial issue shall be taught authoritatively to pupils. This is what Fascist and other totalitarian states do; but it is propaganda and indoctrination, not democratic education.

3. Is the teacher then to decide what he or she shall teach the pupils?

Answer. If it is a controversial issue, it is neither moral nor democratic for the teachers to teach one side. It is the teacher's business to help make pupils and students ever more capable of deciding controversial social issues for themselves. This is the way to build democratic citizenship.

4. Do all questions stand on the same footing? Are all social questions to be treated as controversial? Are pupils and students never to reach any conclusions on which they are later to stand?

Answer. If people really think, they are likely to conclude, each one for himself. The problem of intelligence is that they do not conclude without thinking, or on too little thinking, and even then that they do not conclude with dogmatic finality.

As to questions all being controversial, they are not, certainly not in the same degree. For proper teaching it appears that we should make a distinction between questions that are relatively settled and those that are still controversial. Among the questions relatively settled for this country are such as democracy, our common morals, geology, and so forth. These we would teach to the younger children as true, taking pains to make them ever more intelligent about them. As pupils get older, the teacher should raise more questions about these problems so that they may be more surely understood and accepted on their merits. The controversial issues are different. We treat them with due regard to what is involved for all concerned. Some may object to having such questions discussed. But we are not to avoid any such questions simply because some people interested to the contrary may not like to have them questioned.

5. Do parents and citizens have then no rights as to what goes on in the schools?

Answer. Both prudentially and considerately we have to regard parents and citizens. Prudentially so, because otherwise we and the school get into trouble. Considerately so, because parents and citizens have rights and sensitivities which we should consider. There are, however, limits; and the welfare of the pupils and of society as a whole may at times counterbalance the uninformed wishes of parents and local citizens.

6. But do not teachers as other citizens owe loyalty to the recognized documents and statements of what constitutes the proper American outlook?

Answer. We owe loyalty not to past statements or ideas but to the best possible position that further thinking can find. For myself, I accept constitutional government and constitutional changes therein in opposition to violent or illegal changes, and count such constitutions among the greatest achievements of civilization. But we must be free to alter and amend as new conditions or better insight may demand.

7. Is there after all any real danger to reasonable academic freedom?

Answer. Yes, there is great danger. In most of the schools in this country teachers may be dropped at the end of the year for any or no reason whatsoever. This means that reactionary demagogues, often masquerading under the cloak of patriotism, can by threats seriously lessen the discussion of controversial economic and political issue. Superintendents are afraid of these patriotic busybodies and advise teachers to avoid offending them. As a result our social science teaching is in great danger of being kept in innocuous sterility. This danger to our schools and through them to our civilization is very real and very great.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 37 Number 2, 1935, p. 94-99
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 7624, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 5:18:45 PM

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