Academic freedom is essential in the classroom
Here at the University of Dallas, we are dedicated to the importance of truth, beauty, and goodness. Nowhere is this more apparent or evident than in our classroom, where we seek to incorporate these values from Western tradition into the world around us.
As a result, we have always been proud to be a university for independent thinkers. However, an important question has arisen over the past two weeks regarding how independent our thinkers are and what that looks like in the classroom.
The recent controversy over programs on our campus shows that academic freedom, characteristic of independent thought, is being called into question.
While some members of the community were offended by the statement, other members of our community felt that the professor’s academic freedom was essential for a school dedicated to the liberal arts (and increasingly rare) , was under attack.
Perhaps, however, the issue of politically charged statements is inevitable, as we don’t live in a bubble and modern culture affects how we view the world, for better or for worse.
The classroom, the essence of this university, is a sacred space. It is the space where the student enters into dialogue with the great giants of our tradition, and where the teacher must enter into this dialogue with the student, guiding them throughout this intellectual journey as Gandalf does Frodo. in the classic fantasy novel “The Lord of the Rings” – providing a frame of reference and a broad purpose in mind, but allowing the student the freedom to choose their own path within this frame.
However, classrooms rarely operate this way. We see polarization and fragmentation, and ultimately the dreaded word “political” must always enter the conversation, to the inevitable dismay on one side or the other.
What if an interpretation of events is decidedly biased, or if political jargon is used by teachers?
It seems to me at least that if we look to the past, maybe we can give some vocabulary to the situation around us, which helps us to better understand where we are in the present moment and where we need to go in the future. .
For Aristotle, man is a political animal. Man being a human being, he naturally gravitates towards the community. “Politics” in itself is the study of how man participates in the life of this community.
Thus, one cannot dissociate “politics” from the class, insofar as one cannot remove the pupil from the class. To do so is to isolate man from his relationship with others, and threaten the community life of the university.
The teacher in turn cannot avoid introducing politics in one way or another, for it is this participation in the life of the community that remains an integral part of the classroom experience.
Therefore, academic freedom plays a vital role in the learning process. However, it is not a freedom to say what you think; it also implies a non-conformity with the popular opinions of the day.
Understanding that responsibility comes with this freedom places both teacher and student in a framework that each must respect in order to foster a fruitful conversation – provided, of course, that the teacher and student understand that they are may not fully persuade the other to accept their position.
Regarding the recent controversy, I contend that the professor in question was using his academic freedom properly, as he was stating a fact about the origins of the COVID-19 virus. He was not expressing his opinion or attributing the virus itself to Asians and Asian Americans.
However, as previously stated, academic freedom also applies to students expressing disagreement with the professor, as they have a legitimate concern about the violence and racial discrimination that Asians and Asian Americans have suffered. following the COVID-19 pandemic. .
These concerns are valid and present the need for a healthy conversation about the balance of factual information and the impact of language on the lives of others, especially those of marginalized groups. For this conversation to take place, academic freedom must be the foundation for fruitful dialogue.
Having a discussion with respect from both sides is a discussion that will be essential to maintaining a community and university dedicated to truth, goodness and beauty in light of the Western intellectual tradition. Without this discussion – and its presupposing element of academic freedom – it will be impossible to produce truly independent thinkers.