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Introduction To Dialog On Indoctrination

By Dan Weisman

At least 17 states, including Rhode Island, and the US Congress, are considering legislation that would cede some aspects of public college and university governance from the faculty and administration to the state legislature. There are variations, but the proposals tend to include legislative oversight in areas of hiring and curricular content, with an eye on equalizing liberal and conservative perspectives. For example, some of the bills have been viewed as potentially requiring presentation of all theories addressing phenomena under study.

The so-called "Academic Bill of Rights" or "Student Bill of Rights" is being promoted by a well-financed campaign coordinated by Students for Academic Freedom (www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org), a political group with ties to right-wing issues, and bases its campaign on the assertion that college faculties are dominated by liberal professors who promote their own agendas at the expense of student free expression and ideologically minority (i.e., conservative) junior faculty.

The validity of the charges notwithstanding, fidelity to the concept of academic freedom requires maintaining a campus that encourages the free exchange of ideas, and respects the right of students, faculty, administration and staff to express unpopular views. For professional programs with values bases, like social work, education, nursing, medicine, law, anthropology and journalism, there is a special challenge to protect students' academic freedom while preparing them to function in professions guided by codes of ethics, i.e., preferred values.

Given the substantial power imbalance between faculty and students, episodes of values imposition, actual and perceived, are likely to occur. Grievance procedures protect students from violations of their rights, but accommodation is less risky, given the need for grades and future references. For students with multiple life roles (e.g., commuters), the energy required to resist indoctrination, let alone challenge it, is not available.

Proponents of these "bills of rights" have found some fertile ground for their initiatives in this scenario of power imbalance and perceived liberal bias among professors. But their solution, curtailing academic freedom throughout public higher education by inserting state legislatures in hiring, tenure, promotion and even curricular decisions, betrays their true objective: silencing dissent. Rather, there is a burden on educators to respect students' academic freedoms. When we interact with students over values, our purpose should be either to teach about the preferred views of the discipline under study (i.e., professions' ethical codes) or to promote students' critical thinking skills, which can only occur by examining various beliefs, not by imposing ours. The theme of inclusive teaching, underlying this volume of the Journal, requires exactly this level of respect for students: challenge them without indoctrinating them.

This issue arose on the Rhode Island College campus during the recent academic year. In an attempt to explore the extent to which academic freedom is strained or healthy, Issues in Teaching and Learning posted a call for essays on the topic, in the campus electronic circular, Briefs, and the student newspaper, The Anchor. Two submissions were received, both from faculty, and are published here. We welcome additional essays from all members of the academic community. Send submissions to dweisman@ric.edu. We plan to post essays on the Journal website, to promote a continuing dialog, and to consider them for publication in our next volume.

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Page last updated: March 15, 2006