Threats to Freedom in Higher Education

Dr. Hepburn is Professor of History and Chairman, Division of Social Sciences at Wayne State College in Nebraska.

The decline of freedom is the critical issue in higher education in America. This alarming trend has resulted from developments within colleges and universities as well as from failures in the pre-college education of entering freshmen.

The future state of the college teacher as an independent professional dedicated to free inquiry and free expression of ideas within his competence has been brought into question more than ever during the past decade as a result of pressure from three important developments. The first of these is a drastic increase in direct interference by the federal government in both public and private higher education; the second is the increasing willingness of faculty members themselves to give up their freedom in order to organize to lobby and strike; and the third is the lack of responsibility of faculty and administrators in defending freedom on the campus against threats of force.

As a result of government intervention, many institutions either because they have chosen to be a part of a federal program, or because they must comply with a federal regulation, or both, have found their free choice limited. They have been forced to offer particular courses in order to receive proffered funds, have had to engage in special research projects encouraged by Washington, or have had to hire, on occasion, those whom they felt to be less qualified so that a federal agency would be satisfied. All this has been expensive; but, worse, it has hampered free choice in an area where freedom of choice is vital.

In Defense of Liberty

We who share in a college community must begin to turn away from such controls by being as completely fair as is humanly possible in all dealings with each other, while at the same time we must not allow government agencies to use threats of force against us unjustly. We must, whenever possible, avoid federal funding which restricts our free choice in academic decisions. We all possess separate and unique viewpoints, desires, and backgrounds, but one thing that all faculty members should have in common is a love of liberty, and this most precious commodity is worth defending at all costs.

Next, a growing militancy of professors at many institutions is noticeable in their encouragement and expansion of the assumed separation of interest between members of the faculty and administration, a separation which is thought by many to be inherent in the nature of educational institutions. This militancy has now gone to the point where faculty members in some colleges have formed labor organizations modeled on those of industry. Many of these militant instructors declare that they will now use the same methods of organized force, which have done so much to bring havoc and disruption to our economy, to deal with boards of trustees. If this movement succeeds, faculties will be regimented as never before. They will be told finally how many students they can teach, when they can teach, what duties are those of faculty, and which those of "management" and so on. Let us heed the restrictions placed upon union workers, not by their managers, but by their unions. Few of us could live up to our personal professional standards under such conditions, and most of us never had such things in mind when we entered the profession. A bricklayer lays to the specifications of an architect. He may want to lay more bricks per day than the union allows, but he can practice his skill to a reasonable degree within union requirements. A teacher, like the artist, the poet or the sculptor, is a creator and innovator; he cannot bind himself to group controls.

Current faculty interest in collective bargaining and unionization may be blamed in part on the lack of support for salaries in higher education in both public and private institutions when the economy showed a healthy expansion during the fifties and sixties. Teachers in particular did not benefit in relation to their peers in other professions. Everyone was for better education but no one wanted to pay faculty. Yet resentment over low salaries and meager fringe benefits cannot be the central cause of the new militancy. That higher education is an attractive career, particularly in academic areas, can be shown by the numbers of people wanting to enter college teaching in spite of the lack of jobs. Salaries, though low by comparison with other professions, are acceptable to many. A better answer may be found in a new attitude toward teaching among younger members of the profession who sometimes seem less interested in service than in what they can obtain from it. They show little patience with the notion that some years of active college teaching ought to precede senior status with its rank and privileges. This observation applies only to a minority of younger faculty, but their voices are often heard advocating labor-style organization.

The third development in higher education which encroaches on free academic inquiry is the misinterpretation, by mistake or design, of the concept of academic freedom. We have been told recently by some of our colleagues that "academic freedom" covers such acts as being absent from class to lead demonstrations against the Viet Nam war, against the institution’s administration, or in protest of another faculty member’s dismissal. The protection of academic freedom became a rationale at one major university to justify, in a course on major American writers of the twentieth century, the sole study of Marx, Engels, and Mao Tse-tung; and it has been used to justify the acts of faculty members in organizing students and sympathetic colleagues to disrupt the classes of teachers who disagreed with the minority on an issue and even to justify the use of force against those who opposed such action. In the face of claims like these, academic freedom, a worthy ideal whose achievement should be the goal of everyone involved in higher education, has been condemned by the layman. If the ideal is to survive at all, those of us who believe in it must come to its support; we must identify what we mean by it and denounce attempts by a few among us to hide behind its protections while destroying all it stands for by their behavior. If we lose freedom of thought and expression in our educational institutions, freedom in our society will wither and die.

Our failure in the past has been a failure of moral perception followed by a failure of nerve. As faculty members we have refused to condemn attacks on freedom by our colleagues but rather have been content to ignore them, hoping the administration would do the condemning so that we would not need to take a stand on an issue that might prove controversial. Administrators, faced with situations demanding quick and decisive action, instead of meeting their obligations, have held committee meetings, formed study groups, or left for Washington on business.

Loss of Public Confidence

The result has been an immeasurable loss of confidence on the part of the public for the institutions which should be providing intellectual and moral leadership at a critical time in history. Universities must be places where freedom is supreme and this can only exist, as is true everywhere when each member of the community, whether he be student or president, respects the dignity and rights of every other member. It is imperative that those who have committed themselves to an institution through the acceptance of salary also commit themselves to the maintenance of order under which freedom, not license, can reign. There can be no freedom where there is no security against coercion and intimidation.

Freedom is further threatened by the decline in the level of competence of students entering college. This year’s College Board and Scholastic Aptitude scores show significant drops in both verbal and quantitative abilities. These new scores are the latest records in a general decline in such scores over the past several years. No one seems to know whom to blame, and perhaps correctly so, because the fault belongs to all of us in some degree. Yet, anyone reading a set of freshman essays must realize that Americans can do better than they have been doing in teaching fundamentals. When students enter college after twelve years of school and still write "sentences" without verbs and are unable to turn fractions into decimals or to understand basic vocabulary, then their time has been poorly used. Worse than that, they are handicapped by being unprepared for life. The student who is terribly worried about the plight of Portugal cannot write three coherent paragraphs to explain why.

It is true that the growing number of open admissions policies — a healthy development that will undoubtedly rescue some potential talent otherwise overlooked — has encouraged many students to enter college today who might not have done so a generation ago. With open admissions we can expect many more poorly prepared students to come to college. Yet it also seems apparent that the phenomenon we are dealing with at the college level is only a symptom of a much larger and far more pressing issue in society at large: that is, the changing values of Americans. Among other things, this has meant that with the lure of more activities that distract, study time has lost the high priority it once had. Parents frequently condemn public school teachers who ask for quality classroom performance at the expense of student participation in some other function.

Emphasis on Ethics

Many of us have come back to the idea that we need to emphasize ethics in education and that learning and ethical purpose go together. Values not only need thoughtful consideration in the classroom, but we can do much toward developing an awareness of values by the way we approach learning. We can demonstrate that when study is correctly pursued so that the student makes a subject his own, the result is satisfaction of the soul and increased creativity; that a job done well is worth a great deal no matter what the job is; that a mathematical principle mastered can be more satisfying than an evening at the movies; that a thought put to prose so that it radiates the mind of the writer has its own special reward which makes the effort worthwhile; that a new word learned expands one’s ideas countless times; that certain literary masterpieces last through the ages because they deal with eternal truths; and that any advance toward satisfactory answers to the essential question, "Who am I?" is what education is all about. In short, I believe that the correct teaching of fundamentals presumes the ethics of free inquiry and mental discipline. By not insisting from the beginning that students do the best that they can do, we have failed not only to help them master needed foundation skills, but we have encouraged them in the belief that any performance is acceptable, and that so long as one’s peers accept him, ethical considerations are of secondary importance. The thrill of learning in most cases has never been a part of their lives. We have encouraged the belief that continuing efforts to understand are not important, that machines can work out problems, that telephones can substitute for writing letters, and that the experts can explain anything beyond the rudimentary so that critical thinking is not necessary for most people.

It Finally Comes Down to Parental Responsibility

Those of us in higher education must accept a degree of responsibility for all this, although, of course, the final blame must lie with the majority of American parents who do not want their children to be required to meet reasonable standards of scholarship in grade and high schools, and who are willing to see the teachers of their children turned into tax-supported baby sitters instead of highly prepared professionals. For our part we have too often dismissed the inadequacies of our college students by arguing that they should have learned fundamentals in high school and that there are other things to be done now. Our students are allowed to go through college without learning to write or read well or to do simple mathematics. They receive diplomas but gain no real sense of accomplishment; and, since they have not mastered the tools for acquiring knowledge and for thinking and self-expression, their college years have been of minimal value. Many of these same students become teachers themselves and perpetuate the process.

The cycle can be reversed by an insistence upon mastery of the essentials as a part of higher education. We should turn away no inquiring mind; but we should develop in that mind the skills of organized thought. This will mean a great deal of work for all of us. It will mean long hours of grading exams, but this is the only way it can be done; and we can do it only when boards and legislatures understand the need to fund adequate staffs for the job. Teaching is basically a person-to-person activity depending for success upon the willingness of one caring person to encourage another who wishes to learn, and this is true whether a class is large or small. No matter what the odds for success, we must stop catering to the inadequacies of our students by shaping our readings, lectures, and discussions for ninth-grade abilities. We must expect them to read and write well; and if not, we must help them to learn to do so with the normal assignments. One suggestion might be to assign less reading with the expectation that it be thoroughly absorbed. Careful selection can provide sufficient thought-provoking material for advanced students while not overwhelming those less capable. When we expect mastery of fundamentals in our colleges, we will be in a position to lead the grade schools and high schools and to show the public what is to be gained in terms of human values. Then we may expect changes in the first twelve grade levels; and by then, hopefully, teachers from our colleges will be aware themselves of the loss in human creativity and personal liberty which accrues when millions of young men and women have not adequately developed mental discipline.

Ignorance of the rudiments on the part of many college students may be classified as a loss of individual liberty on two counts: first, such students are dependent upon others and second, they may be easily led because they cannot acquire and assimilate knowledge. Today, more than ever before, free men must be able not only to identify the elements of freedom, they must be able to express them in terms of every aspect of daily life. Colleges should provide the greatest opportunity for this activity on all levels. 

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