Any time a great debate rages on any particular subject—such as academic freedom—and on each side of the controversy are arrayed intelligent men of good will, one conclusion can be reasonably drawn: Some basic principle in the argument has been neglected.
Academic freedom has been debated as if it were primarily an ideological or a philosophical problem whereas, in my view, it is an organizational problem. Whether a teacher be a communist, a socialist, a Fabian, a New Dealer, or their direct opposite, is a matter of secondary concern, unrelated, strictly speaking, to academic freedom. If we were to shift the subject from academic freedom to the free market and then argue that it mattered whether or not one were a carpenter, a plumber, a farmer, or whatever, we would be on comparably untenable ground.
The confusions about academic freedom may be cleared if we first examine teaching in its simplest form and move from there to more complex forms.
The simplest teaching relationship would exist between parent and child. The parent is responsible for the child, and consequently has authority over the child. The basic principle in all successful organization is that responsibility and authority be commensurate. Any deviation leads to trouble, whether in the simplest relationship between parent and child or in such complex relationships as are found in large corporate organizations. The successful parent-child relationship will find the parent relinquishing authority as the child grows in stature and assumes the responsibilities for his own life. When responsibilities are fully assumed, no parental authority whatever should remain. The solution of the academic freedom problem rests squarely on the responsibility-authority principle. The mother teaching her child, assuming no interference, has perfect academic freedom. She will teach the child precisely what she wants to teach. Whether the mother is a communist, an anarchist, or of the libertarian persuasion has no bearing on the question of academic freedom.
A Third Party Introduced
Now let us take the first step toward complexity, the mother employing an aide, shall we say a tutor? The responsibility for the education of the child still rests with the mother. And if trouble is not to ensue, the authority must also remain with her. The tutor may or may not share the mother’s views about life, education, and social affairs. But regardless of their agreements or differences, the mother should still be in the driver’s seat. If she can delegate a portion of her responsibility-authority powers to the tutor, she also should be free to revoke such powers. The power to hire, logically, carries with it the power to fire. If one could only delegate and not revoke, could only hire and not fire, he would be in the absurd situation of having to live all of his lifetime with an ever-growing accumulation of mistakes. If this were the case, who would dare risk employing anyone?
In this mother-child-tutor arrangement, let us assume that the mother is a devotee of socialism and that the teacher turns out, much to the mother’s surprise and disgust, to be of the libertarian persuasion, one who believes in no coercion at all to direct the creative activities of citizens within a society. What then? Is the socialist mother obligated to retain the libertarian tutor on the grounds of academic freedom? Whose academic freedom? The mother’s or the tutor’s? Is the mother, who once had academic freedom, now to be deprived of it because of hiring the tutor? Is the tutor’s freedom to teach what he pleases to supersede the mother’s freedom to have her child taught what she wishes? This anomalous arrangement would have the mother responsible for the education of the child and for paying the tutor, and leave the tutor with authority as to what the child should be taught—the responsibility-authority principle totally violated. Nothing but friction would result, certainly no educational progress.
Libertarian views generally are founded on the belief that each person has an inalienable right to his own life; that he has the responsibility to protect and to sustain his life; and with this goes the corresponding authority to make free choices as related to every creative action—no exceptions! Our tutor, holding such libertarian views, must concede that the socialist mother’s academic freedom supersedes his own as it relates to what should be taught the child. That is her business and not his. For him to argue that he can teach her child what he pleases, that she does not have the authority and the right to discharge him lest his academic freedom be violated, is to place the argument on the wrong ground. Such a claim would be for tenure, not for academic freedom.
The tutor’s academic freedom is in no way violated if the socialist mother chooses to discharge him. He is free to teach his libertarian views to his own children or to the children of parents who may subscribe to the services he is prepared to render. Academic freedom would be violated if one were coerced into teaching what he believed to be wrong—if the libertarian tutor were compelled to teach socialism, or if the socialist mother were compelled to have her child taught libertarian ideas.
Numbers can be added to the parent-tutor relationship without altering the responsibility-authority lines. A good example was the Ferris Institute of 1917, long before it became a government school. Mr. Ferris owned the school. There was no Board of Trustees. It was a venture as private as his own home. He employed teachers in accord with his judgment of their competence. He admitted students in accord with his judgment of their worthiness. If he thought he had erred in the selection of a teacher, the teacher was discharged. And many students were sent home because they would not meet the standard of hard work he required.
Mr. Ferris had the sole responsibility for the success of Ferris Institute; and, correctly, he assumed the authority for its conduct. Academic freedom was in no way offended. Teachers who shared his educational principles were free to submit their credentials and, if employed, to put these principles into practice. Parents who liked the hard-work standards of Ferris Institute were free to seek admission for their children.
Most private educational organizations are more complex than was the Ferris Institute of that time. Some are corporations organized for profit, in which case the ultimate responsibility and authority rest with the stockholders in proportion to their ownership. As a rule, the responsibility and authority are delegated to a Board of Trustees; and the Board, in turn, delegates the responsibility and authority to a chief executive officer, usually a president. The president organizes the institution and delegates the responsibility and authority vested in him to numerous sub administrators and teachers. The stockholders, having the final responsibility for the institution, quite properly have the authority to change Board membership if they find themselves in disagreement with Board policy. The Board, in turn, having been given the responsibility by the stockholders, has the authority to discharge the chief executive officer if they believe he is not properly executing its policy. The chief executive officer, vested with responsibility by the Board, has the authority to change his aides if he believes they are not carrying out his ideas. Discretion in exercising authority, regardless of where vested, is assumed.
Complexity in no way alters the responsibility-authority principle, but only increases the difficulty of tracing the responsibility and authority lines.
Rules for Cooperation
All organization, educational or otherwise, is an attempt at cooperation. Cooperation is not possible unless responsibility and authority go hand-in-hand. Example: You want a new house, but rather than build your own you select a contractor to whom you delegate the responsibility to build it in conformity with specified plans. Now, suppose that you delegate no authority to the contractor and that other members of your family, and any of the carpenters, can alter the plans at will. The house, if one ever materialized, in all probability would be a mess.
Suppose, on the other hand, that you have given the contractor an authority commensurate with his responsibility, and he then tells the carpenters that the construction is to be precisely according to your plan. But the carpenters protest: "This is doing violence to our freedom. You are not letting us practice our views on carpentry." The absurdity of this is apparent. Yet, it is the same as the teacher’s protest, "You are doing violence to my academic freedom," when he is asked to respect the authority of the one who has the responsibility for the teaching organization. Actually, he is insisting that he be permitted to do as he pleases in matters for which someone else has the responsibility. He claims freedom to do as he pleases while he denies it to the responsible person who pays him.
Often, it is not academic freedom that is at issue; it is simply a claim for tenure. American parents, not wanting communism and socialism taught to their children, seek the discharge of teachers of such faiths. But the teachers cry "academic freedom" and the parents, Board members, and school officials are loath to violate this sacrosanct part of their own philosophy. So, the academic freedom argument is a good tenure argument. It is precisely the same as the "right to a job" argument advanced so persuasively by professionals of the labor movement. It "works," and therefore is used.
Enter, the Government
This argument succeeds because the responsibility-authority principle has been neglected. The neglect comes, in the case of public or, more accurately, government education, because it is most difficult to know who is responsible or what performance is expected. Where does responsibility ultimately rest? With the taxpayers in proportion to their assessments for schools? Generally, this would be denied. With the parents who have children in government schools? These, seemingly, have no more responsibility than those with children in private schools, or than those who have no children at all.
With the voters? Probably this is as close as one can come to identifying ultimate responsibility in the case of government education. If the responsibility rests here, then that is where the final authority rests. It rests here in theory and to some extent in practice. The voters—whether or not they are interested in education and whether or not they have children—elect Boards of Education. These in turn select superintendents, who then employ deputies and teachers. Without too much difficulty, one can trace the chain of responsibility in government education from the voters who ultimately hold it and who delegate it by plebiscite to Boards of Education, to superintendents, to teachers. But the teachers, in theory, have no authority to teach what they please. They are, in theory, subject to the authority of the superintendents, the superintendents subject to the Boards, and the Board members to the voters. Simple enough thus f ar!¹
The question is: What do the voters want taught? What teaching has this heterogeneous mass the authority to impose? Every conceivable point of view and educational technique known to man may be found among these millions of voters. They range from one ideological extreme to the other. Among them are communists, socialists of every gradation, anarchists, libertarian idealists, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and what have you!
What do these people want? They want all things. And the best one can expect from such a plebiscite is the common denominator opinion of the millions, an opinion subject to all sorts of emotional influences, expressed in a voice that is rarely clear.
Our purpose here is not to argue the merits of government education, but to demonstrate how confusion about academic freedom arises when the source of responsibility is unable to speak clearly or exercise the authority it possesses "on paper" or in theory.
There need be no such confusion in the case of private education. Pronounced variation results from private endeavor. Each enterprise presents its own brand of education, and citizens take their choice.
Government endeavor, on the other hand, results in vague generalizations. All the wants and aspirations, the interests and conflicts, are combined into an educational potpourri, the ingredients of the compromise being proportional to the popularity of various ideas at the moment.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that all parties in the chain of government responsibility-authority—Boards of Education, superintendents, deputies, and teachers—are themselves voters making decisions not only as a part of the plebiscite but acting on their own authority, not necessarily the authority issuing from the plebiscite.
The government educational effort is a political apparatus and behaves accordingly. The indifference of voters invites special interests to assume command.2 For instance, if teachers adequately organize, they can easily control the government school system and supplant the voters as the responsibility-authority fountainhead. The deputies, the superintendent, the Board of Education, and the voters become the teachers’ aides, so to speak, helping primarily as taxpayers.
When affairs take such a turn—a common occurrence—it is easy to see how teachers resent any voter interference with the freedom to teach whatever they please. The teachers have appropriated the responsibility for the government schools. And with the responsibility goes the authority to manage the schools, even the authority to make the voters—displaced bosses—pay the bills. In this topsy-turvy arrangement, it is natural that teachers should feel free to teach what they please. Interference, from whatever source, is indeed a violation of their politically purchased "academic freedom."
Remove the Coercion
As long as education is politically organized, the squabble over academic freedom will continue. The voters, by reason of their natural indifference and diverse opinions, are unlikely to regain the responsibility and authority which the theory of government education presumes to be theirs. If they would end the squabble, they will have to get education out of the political arena.
This confusion about academic freedom, which originates in government education, carries over into private schools in many instances.
Academic freedom is no more sacred than is freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religious freedom, freedom to produce what one pleases, and freedom to trade with whomever one pleases. There is no freedom peculiar to the classroom, diplomas, degrees, or mortarboards. Let anyone teach what he pleases, but let him do it on his own responsibility. Let him not cry "academic freedom" as he robs someone else of freedom.
When government is in the educational driver’s seat, academic freedom will always be argued as if a political and ideological problem, which really it is not. When the market is free for the production and exchange of all goods and all services the issue of freedom—academic, economic, or whatever—is never in question.
There is no word that admits of more various significations and has made more varied impressions on the human mind, than that of liberty. Some have taken it as a means of deposing a person on whom they had conferred a tyrannical authority; others for the power of choosing a superior whom they are obliged to obey; others for the right of bearing arms, and of being thereby enabled to use violence; others, in fine, for the privilege of being governed by a native of their own country, or by their own laws.
Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws
1 It is not quite as simple as this suggests. Federal and State and City Departments of Education are assuming increasing powers and tend further to confuse the responsibility-authority lines.
2 Voter indifference today in America is no sociological accident. It is an inevitable consequence of overextended government. Voter indifference today in America is no sociological accident. It is an inevitable consequence of overextended government.