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29 March 2005




You'll never take our academic FREEEEEEEDOM!

Fafblog advises us of the proposed Academic Freedom Bill of Rights for Florida. The cited article from the Florida Alligator is mildly alarming to say the least. Herewith a brief look at the legislation itself.

The first thing that strikes me is just how badly worded the bill is. All of the rights listed are of the form "X has a right to expect that Y". Does this mean that if I have an expectation, however unrealistic, then my right has not been infringed upon? In other words you can go away and expect Y, but there's no way the university is going to provide it for you!

Other examples of the sloppy writing:

  • "[students] will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion". Sounds like a demand for a well-stocked library and no more.
  • "serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose." Of course they should be.
  • "education will not be infringed upon by instructors who persistently introduce controversial matter into the classroom or coursework that has no relation to the subject of study and serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." (my emphasis) I think they mean "or".

At this point I will attempt to resist the suggestion that the authors of this bill should have spent some more time reflecting on the grammatical instruction of their post-secondary educators. Hmm, nope, can't resist it.

An alternative explanation might involve the legibility train-wreck that is legalese in general. But for mine, this explanation doesn't cut it. Whereas excessive use of terms such as "whereas" is merely obfuscatory, the sloppiness exemplified above seems to be contrary to the author's intent.

So if you try to read the intent behind the proposed rights, you end up with some uncontroversial, but frustratingly vague motherhood statements. Let's take the first one, which is pretty representative of the others (in fact the 6th proposed right is more or less a duplicate):

(1) Students have a right to expect a learning environment in which they will have access to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion pertaining to the subjects they study. In the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts, the fostering of a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives should be a significant institutional purpose.

On the face of it this doesn't sound too bad. There certainly exist bad educators who do not embrace legitimate debate within their classes and this needs to be continually monitored and addressed where appropriate. Perhaps a bill of academic rights a the way to do this, perhaps not.

The second part of this right I think I actually agree with also. By singling out humanities as an area where differing opinion is something to be promoted and valued, they are implying that less variation is to be tolerated amongst the sciences. Of course it's not a strong statement, and needs to recognise that there are contexts in which you have to agree on certain common ground in order to even have a discussion, let alone educate. 2 + 2 = 5 is not a valid perspective in your maths class, even though it might be a valid artistic expression.

But all this rests on what might be considered serious scholarly opinion. The Alligator article poses some more radical ideas of what might come under this category, such as conspiracy theories about the faked moon landings, or denials about the Holocaust. It even suggests that enforcing the use of the Socratic method would be considered a violation of Academic rights. It's not obvious to me that such fanciful notions would be unintended consequences of this bill or not, but anything's possible.

So the bill is poorly written, vague and non-deterministic, but that's not the worst of it. The worst flaws are the flaws of omission, specifically the obligations that accompany academic freedoms.

While we would all agree that diversity of opinion is a good thing in general, there are practical limits which need to be respected. And this just means debating the topic in the correct forum. Convinced that the world is all an illusion and you are just a brain floating in a vat being fed electrical impulses? No problem, take it to the philosophy department - in the meantime you still fail your engineering exam. Educational institutions, not to mention education itself, can hardly proceed with the scope of debate is clouded by philosophical skepticism all the time. Related to this is the obligation of the student to understand the topic before questioning it.

As the late Steve Allen said: "The purpose of having an open mind is the same as having an open mouth, the object being eventually to close it on something solid."

It's not hard to find the real intent here: it's a gateway to allow/require alternatives to evolution to be taught in science classes. In fact this was an issue for the bill's sponsor, Dennis Baxley (Republican of course), as described by Inside Higher Ed:

Rep. Dennis K. Baxley said his own undergraduate education at Florida State University — in the 1970s — illustrated the failings of higher education: The problem was that an anthropology professor “did a tirade” in his course that evolution was correct and that creationism was not. Baxley said that students should not “get blasted” as he did for not believing in evolution.

30 years later, and Baxley is having a tirade of his own, and risks turning Florida into another educational pariah state like Kansas. Worst of luck to you, Dennis!