Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

James K. Daly

In 1936 Howard Beale asked if American teachers were free. It is a question that still resonates today. The issue is entangled in the complex and ever-changing world of educational policy, political pressures, and cultural tensions. A second question to Beales earlier one could very well ask, should they be? What does it mean for teachers to be free? How do cultural expectations impact on what schools, communities, and larger groups perceive as appropriate for examination in public schools?

Many suggest topics, issues, and claims to truth should not be examined at all. Those who know the truth often feel compelled to teach it. Educational orthodoxy, whether of the political Left or the political Right, can silence opposing views, materials, attention. There is a long history of efforts to suppress perspectives. Legislation in many states has institutionalized restrictions on viewpoints, and textbook publishers have complied. Practitioners supporting the status quo, or the work of activist special interest groups have also contributed to censoring views (Jenkinson, 1979, 1985; O’Neil, 1984; Parker and Weiss 1983; Merry, 2009; Fallace, 2011; Hill, 2020, Nelson, 2021).

The essentiality of critical thinking

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential skill for preparing the young to succeed in the 21st century. The NCSS C3 framework identifies critical thinking as a key element in developing engagement and participation among citizens (NCSS 2013). Nelson et al. (2021) cite critical thinking as among the most important issues in schools.

Scholars have long stressed the need for schools to move away from indoctrination, the antithesis of critical thinking. Social studies is where young people must examine conflicts in beliefs and values (Hunt & Metcalf, 1955). Any belief not carefully examined is by definition a prejudice. Oliver and Shaver (1966) assert that the ability to choose on issues of public importance depends on awareness of alternatives. Schools must not just tolerate but encourage the examination of these alternatives. To accomplish this critical thinking is essential.

Critical thinking in schools allows individuals to scrutinize information and claims to truth. Learners explore what can be demonstrated, proved, and accepted using the best available information. Views are challenged, defended, discarded, or temporarily accepted. Learners recognize that acceptance of truth may well be tentative, pending additional knowledge (Pinker 2018).

Critical thinking skills are essential to examining topics on which society is divided (Nelson, 2021a). They protect against propaganda and conspiracy theories. Without these students are simply told what is correct, and which views are to be accepted. Recent years show the danger of this.  In a world of rapid fire media proclaiming new truths throughout the day, with little or poorly supported evidence, students can be ignorant of their own ignorance. This may be welcomed by any number of special interest groups but is anathema to maintaining democracy. 

Critical thinking takes a great deal of time. It requires considerable financial and other resources, from purchasing tools and materials to providing professional development opportunities. The amount of energy needed to do this in a field not easily measured is a challenge (Nelson et al., 2021).

Critical thinking and critical issues

Can critical thinking be promoted when only one or a narrow range of similar views are explored? Can critical thinking be developed for transfer to authentic settings if current critical issues are not examined? Traditionally many ‘givens’ are found both in the formal and the hidden curriculum. They are drawn from the dominant political and cultural perspectives reflecting the larger community. Scholars have consistently asserted that discussing controversy is essential in a diverse democratic society. Critical thinking needs to be about issues that in themselves are critical, with many and competing views. Critical thinking helps students explore different outlooks, and constructively consider consequences of alternative views. Ettinger (2004) refers to this a “constructive harnessing of conflict”. Conflict can be embraced as offering opportunities for exchanging information, evidence, and making tentative conclusions on actions.

Barton and Levstik (2004) state that the aim of history education, and indeed for social studies, is preparing the young to act. Actions and consequences of historic challenges can be scaffolded to frame current day issues. They cite Newman (1975) and his call for intelligent action, the ability to use knowledge and skills to develop a commitment for addressing social problems. The context in which critical thinking skills evolve is pivotal. Barton and Levstik mention Parker and others in advancing the need for the young to understand and experience participatory democracy. Students need to be taught, and practice critical thinking skills on topics where disagreements are analyzed.  They refer to McCully (2002) suggesting that just working on critical thinking skills may not help in examining current divisive topics. Building critical thinking skills without an exploration of authentic current issues may fall far short of what is needed.

Claims to truth need to be analyzed, with critical thinking skills scaffolded, enhanced, and regularly practiced. These skills support conflict resolution strategies, utilizing active listening and clear communication (Katz, 2020). This reinforces what Lortie (1975) referred to as the apprenticeship of observation. Learners routinely experience situations in which these skills are refined and improved. They grapple with different views and competing sources of evidence. The routine and expected school experience would demonstrate a respectful appreciation of diverse views. The hidden curriculum would be supportive of the intellectual work of considering conflicting opinions. The norm would be examining issues in practiced and familiar patterns, respectful of opinions, while accepting disagreement on conclusions. Democratic principles and foundational documents along with Human Rights concepts need to provide the context in which critical thinking evolves. Examining how well these principles, documents and concepts have demonstrated themselves over time provides framing for analyzing current issues.

The need to address critical thinking skills, and the need to do so when addressing current controversial topics puts the teacher at the center of public scrutiny. It is in the larger public arena that controversy is housed, and from which it enters classrooms.

The preponderance of scholarship supports dealing with controversy. Schools must offer individuals opportunity to escape the limitations of the group into which they were born (Dewey, 1916). Schools should create awareness of the larger society. Few other institutions can guide an analysis of past events, an exploration of current considerations, with a focus on the future. 

In a nation as diverse as ours, and in the current political and cultural climate, controversy enters schools and classrooms. The interactions between teachers, administrators, professional organizations, and the public are fraught with complex and often contradictory expectations. Sustaining a democratic republic in this context requires citizens who can examine topics on which there is disagreement (Lynd, 1939; Selakovich, 1967; Newman and Oliver, 1970; Shermis and Barth, 1979; Berlak, 1977; O’Neil, R.M.,1981); Apple, 1982; Besag and Nelson, 1984; Engle and Ochoa, (1986); Daly, et al., 2001; Underwood, 2017; Nelson 2021a).

Are American teachers free?

Teachers appear to be willing to address controversy but often don’t because of concerns about the consequences (Byford, 2009). Nelson (1992) writes that many report they have academic freedom. However, when questioned about teaching specific issues, a typical response was that they were too controversial to teach. Teacher belief in their ability to address controversy does necessarily translate to their doing do (Daly, 1986; Mitchell, Evans, Daly, & Roach, 1997; Misco and Patterson 2007). Patterson (2010) reveals that while 98% of teachers in one study reported they had academic freedom (of varying degrees), over 93% indicated limits to what can be taught. Some of those restrictions might be called self-censorship. Limitations included barriers raised (or anticipated) from community members, administrators, and students. Girard and Harris (2021) describe that teachers in one study found it easy to add topics and issues to provide a more inclusive view. However, they were unwilling to examine contemporary society and power relationships. The local commuity was cited as a significant influence on what teachers address.  In an Education Week article considerable percentages of teachers disclosed they avoided teaching many topics (Pendharkar, 2021). 

Potential Sources supporting teacher freedom

Decisions made by practitioners have consequences for what is taught and how it is taught. State curriculum standards impact those decisions. An analysis of state standards for History indicated clear and opaque support for teacher decision making and selection in many states (Girard and Harris, 2020). The impact on teacher freedom ranged from rigid specificity to almost limitless choice for teachers. Standards may well support considerable freedom in many states; however, more is needed.

Academic Freedom is a philosophical framework buttressing teacher freedom. There are legal decisions that help uphold it. Philosophical views without more compelling legal support cannot be relied upon. They can and should be used to engage educators and communities in discussions on exploring difficult topics. Language supporting academic freedom needs to be in district policy manuals and guides. Hess (2009) reminds us that controversy is a socially constructed phenomenon. She recognizes that the public has a right to have an influence on what is taught in the schools. Engaged and systematic review of the need for, the limits on, and the student benefits of academic freedom need to be promoted. While the specific topics may change, controversy is a given.  Underwood (2017) recognizes that many who would restrict teacher freedom fear indoctrination. They feel left out of curriculum discussions, unaware of pedagogical strategies, and suspicious of views other than their own. Discussions on the nature and purpose of academic freedom may ease that fear.

Academic freedom

The National Council for the Social Studies advocates teacher freedom. The organization issued Position Statements on Academic Freedom in 1969, revised in 2007 (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010).  The most recent maintains that teachers should be free to create settings that foster democratic processes (Social Education, 2016)). Academic Freedom for teachers is necessary to create citizens aware of contentious issues and positions on them. Students need to examine factual claims, discuss competing perspectives, investigate, and analyze topics of concern. This promotes understanding of the relationship between past and present, providing skills and dispositions for grasping local, national, and global views. Truth is difficult to discover and claims to it need to be thoughtfully considered.

Affirming academic freedom is important, as it informs educators and the larger community of its twin features. Academic freedom is not just a concept addressing the teacher, but one focused on the student (Hofstadter and Metzger (1968). Emerging from early German universities, the right of the student to learn was essential. The student was free to explore ideas and not simply compelled to accept all that teachers, text and school presented.

Reassuring the public that academic freedom does not promote indoctrination is critical when many believe schools are overtly trying to impose views antithetical to them. Compelling acceptance of views can create a spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1977; Journell, 2017). Students presented with one perspective, taught by teachers supporting and promoting that perspective, may feel themselves to be in a minority. That perception can lead to silence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students, and families, know what teachers expect, what outlooks are correct, and often the moral value attached to various views. With academic freedom the constraints of local perspectives are open to be examined in a wider context, but student acceptance or belief in those viewpoints is not required. Those who embrace Academic Freedom recognize it is not a license for teachers to force views on students or to limit the issues examined. The concept is a defense against the imposition of certainty, which seems to be an objective of many along the political continuum.

The role of school boards

School Boards approve curricula, resources, and materials. Board meetings often have limited time for public discussion of issues, let alone providing for discussions and examination of curricula content. Entering the term Teacher Academic Freedom on the National School Boards website had no hits. Under one heading on that site Boards were urged to say no to any Federal intrusion of local decision making authority (School Boards Association, 2021). That would seem to provide support for considerable community influence on what is taught, and how it is taught. In the Advocacy Agenda for 2019-2020 (the only one on the website as of 2/16/22), there does not appear to be much about how to work with communities beyond the traditional interactions. No role for the larger public is evident.

Recently local Boards have addressed concerns about what may inappropriately be referred to as Critical Race Theory. A quick google or YouTube search provides evidence that the issue is one generating considerable conflict, and political action at the local and state level. The many YouTube videos, and anecdotal evidence suggest that school board meetings are not the best time or place for discussion. The very structure of public input at Board meetings seems to add frustration and anger to already potentially confrontational topics. Limited time, and the lack of a structure to permit significant and sustained conversation suggests other approaches need to be explored.

A memo from the FBI Director provides evidence that the anecdotal and social media reports of Board confrontations are accurate. The memo cites a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school employees and officials. It indicates that the agency will use FBI agents to discourage, identify and prosecute such threats. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2021).

What is the role of the larger community? Are they to be relegated to sporadic outbursts on social or traditional media, angry statements at school board meetings? How should public views be identified, shared, and considered. Who decides what is controversial, what gets addressed, and how, or if, opposing views are examined, welcome or tolerated?

Should American teachers be free?

American teachers should be free to foster citizens who can critically examine current controversial topics that divide the society. There is a need to protect the right of the student to learn. Teacher freedom brings responsibilities. There is a responsibility to ensure that practitioners and those preparing to practice are knowledgeable about the need for such freedom. There is a responsibility for practitioners to be open to guidance in planning, teaching, and assessing when focused on controversy. Administrators and Boards need to support teachers engaged in this work. They have a responsibility to create environments in which teachers work with colleagues, administrators, and the larger public to build support for addressing controversy. There are too few fora in which such conversation occurs. Those promoting teacher freedom and the right of students to learn beyond indoctrination need to work with school board members and the school community. Together those in schools must actively seek to find opportunities to have difficult conversations about the need for teacher and student freedom.

Preparing teachers for these challenges

Those planning to teach must understand the nature of academic freedom, recognize the need for dealing with controversial issues, and their relationship to citizenship education. Research on teacher preparation in this effort is mixed. Misco and Patterson (2007) report that teacher education candidates understand the concept of academic freedom but believe that it offers only limited protection. Some revealed they would not exercise those freedoms for several reasons, including fear of reprisals. Uncertainty about how to properly deal with controversy led to a deference to community preferences. The majority were aware of constraints on what and how issues could be addressed.

Even after completing a social studies methods course, participants in a study by Nganga et al. (2020) displayed limited awareness and understanding of teaching controversial issues. Most were unwilling or cautious about addressing issues with which they did not feel comfortable, or about which they had little experience. There was acceptance of the need to conform to the views and values dominant in the community (Engebretson, 2018; Hess 2002).

Teacher education programs themselves may not model ways to deal with alternative perspectives. The spiral of silence found in other settings may also be present within these programs (Journell, 2017). Holding conversations and exploring differing perspectives on foundational ideas may not be a priority. There may be ‘single stories’ (Adichie, 2009) in teacher preparation. Divergent views need to be shared and explored.  Doing so would model how to examine differences in the schools in which students will work.

Education programs may be one of many ‘silo’s’ within the university, with their own “silo’s’. Conversation and collaboration between the programs for administrators and other specialists is essential. Counselors, teachers, administrators in training all benefit from examining the nature of controversy, community engagement, and the benefits to teachers and students of academic freedom. There are overlapping interests, and common audiences. This collaboration would help explore ways to engage with the communities in which they already work and those in which they will work.

What needs to be done?

Little in the larger culture provides examples of how people can discuss deeply held and contrary views. The skills of active listening and clear communication need to be practiced examining issues of current importance, even when presented in an historic setting. Students need experience checking the validity of various claims. They need practice within agreed upon ground rules. Time needs to be provided for researching evidence on topics and discussing views. Students require opportunities to analyze issues using various strategies. Students need structure and practice in hearing contrasting views and doing so in respectful ways.

Teachers need to be free to select books, resources, materials, and strategies. This must support the curriculum and be consistent with state standards. Approaches on how to navigate those requirements is needed. Pre-service training and professional development for practitioners needs to be authentic, providing active participation in using various strategies. Routine focus is needed on the rationale for dealing with controversy. Pre-service training needs consistent and collaborative support from professors, clinical field supervisors, cooperating teachers and their administrators. Practitioners need support from colleagues, administrators, and local community members. These groups, committed to democracy, are essential to promoting conversation instead of confrontation on issues of significant disagreement.

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