I’m a big believer in academic freedom. I’ve managed to acquire a handful of degrees from various colleges and universities, and for a brief time I was actually an academic my ownself. When I heard the State of Oklahoma was considering legislation promoting academic freedom, I was understandably pleased.
I said to myself, “Yay Oklahoma!” I started to read HR1674, the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act, with a song in my heart. The legislation begins like this:
[A]n important purpose of science education is to inform students about scientific evidence and to help students develop critical thinking skills they need in order to become intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.
Who could argue against that? We totally want our students to develop mad critical thinking skillz. Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! The proposed legislation acknowledges that encouraging the development of those critical thinking skills can lead to controversy.
[T]he teaching of some scientific concepts including but not limited to premises in the areas of biology, chemistry, meteorology, bioethics and physics can cause controversy, and that some teachers may be unsure of the expectations concerning how they should present information on some subjects such as, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.
So far, so good, right? Yay Oklahoma! Yay critical thinking skills! Yay controversy! Controversy is good. Controversy makes you think. Controversy requires you to…wait. Wait a minute. Wait just one fucking minute here, buddy. Biological evolution? The chemical origins of life? Global warming?
Are you crazy? There’s no scientific controversy about evolution. There’s no scientific controversy about the origin of life or anthropogenic climate change. Those are established scientific facts. What jackass wrote this proposed legislation?
This is Oklahoma state legislator Gus Blackwell. Would you be surprised to discover Blackwell is a Republican? Or that he’s a Baptist minister? Or that he’s spent the last two decades employed by the Oklahoma Baptist General Convention?
I’m not suggesting Blackwell is a jackass because he’s a Republican or a Baptist. There are lots of Republicans and Baptists who go through life without engaging in jackassery. No, Blackwell is a jackass because he’s introduced legislation that would give his Baptist theology the same credibility as science. Blackwell is a jackass because his proposed legislation goes on to say this:
[N]o student in any public school or institution shall be penalized in any way because the student may subscribe to a particular position on scientific theories.
What does that mean? In effect, it means if students were to write a report claiming climate change is a hoax or arguing that the Earth is only 6000 years old and women were created from the rib of Adam, they couldn’t be ‘penalized’ with a bad grade. In an interview, Blackwell said,
“I proposed this bill because there are teachers and students who may be afraid of going against what they see in their textbooks. A student has the freedom to write a paper that points out that highly complex life may not be explained by chance mutations.”
Blackburn is a jackass, but he’s right about that. A certainly student does have the freedom to write a paper arguing against evolution. But if that paper was written for a science class, then the student should expect a failing grade. Not because the teacher may disagree with the student’s belief system, but because that student would be what we academics call ‘wrong.’
Blackwell and his ilk (yes, there is an entire ilk of jackasses like Gus Blackwell) propose this sort of legislation under the guise of promoting ‘academic freedom.’ I’m sorry to say they know as much about academic freedom as they know about science.
Academic freedom, like evolution or gravity or anthropomorphic climate change, is an actual thing. It has an actual meaning. It’s not a matter of opinion. And it’s got nothing to do with students having the freedom to write papers about humans cavorting with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden.
Academic freedom doesn’t apply to students representing a personal point of view. Legally, it doesn’t even apply to teachers or college professors. In the United States, the courts have ruled that academic freedom resides in the university. Academic freedom gives the university the power to appoint faculty and set standards for their behavior.
All major universities in the U.S. abide by the 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which insures that:
- Teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties.
- Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject. Limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.
- College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.
It was academic freedom that enabled Blackwell to attend Oklahoma Baptist University and Southwestern Baptist Theology Seminary and study Baptist theology. Yay academic freedom! But academic freedom doesn’t mean he can legislate that his theology be given equal credibility as science. Boo jackassery!
Happily for Gus Blackwell, though, nobody has proposed legislation limiting his freedom to be a jackass.