Academic freedom is essential in the classroom

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Photo by Lauren Hill

Here at the University of Dallas, we are dedicated to the importance of truth, beauty and goodness. Nowhere is that more apparent or evident than in our classroom, where we seek to incorporate these values of the Western tradition into the world around us. 

As a result, we have always prided ourselves on being a university for independent thinkers. However, an important question has arisen in the past couple of weeks regarding how independent our thinkers should be, and what this looks like in the classroom.  

The recent syllabus controversy on our campus shows that academic freedom, a hallmark characteristic of independent thinking, is being brought into question. 

While some members of the community were offended by the statement, other members of our community felt that the professor’s academic freedom, something that is essential to a school dedicated to the liberal arts (and increasingly becoming a rarity), was attacked. 

Perhaps though, the question of politically charged statements is unavoidable, insofar as we do not live in a bubble and modern culture does affect how we perceive the world, for better or worse. 

The classroom, the essence of this university, is a sacred space. It is the space where the student enters into dialogue with the great giants of our tradition, and where the teacher should enter into this dialogue with the student, guiding them throughout this intellectual journey as Gandalf does Frodo in the classic fantasy novel “The Lord of the Rings” — providing a frame of reference and a broad goal in mind, but allowing the student the freedom to choose his own path within that framework. 

However, classrooms rarely do work that way. We see polarization and fragmentation, and ultimately the dreaded word “politics” must always enter the conversation, to the inevitable consternation of one side or the other. 

What are we to do if an interpretation of events is decidedly slanted, or if political jargon is thrown around by teachers? 

It seems to me at least that if we look to the past, we might be able to give a vocabulary to the situation around us, which in turn helps us to better understand where we are in the present moment and where we should go in the future. 

For Aristotle, man is a political animal. As man is a human being, he naturally gravitates toward community. “Politics” per se is the study of the way in which man participates in the life of that community. 

Thus, we cannot divorce “politics” from the classroom, insofar as we cannot remove the student from the class. To do so is to isolate man from his relationship with others, and to threaten the communal life of the university. 

The teacher in turn cannot avoid introducing politics in some way, because it is this participation in the life of the community that remains an integral part of the classroom experience. 

Therefore, academic freedom plays an essential role in the learning process. However, it is not a freedom to say whatever one thinks; it also implies non-conformity with the popular opinions of the day. 

Understanding that responsibilities accompany this liberty places both the teacher and the student within a framework that each must abide by in order promote fruitful conversation — provided, of course, that both teacher and student understand they may not fully persuade the other to accept his or her position.

In regards to the recent controversy, I argue that the professor in question was using his academic liberty properly, insofar as he was stating a fact about the origins of the COVID-19 virus. He was not stating his opinion or attributing the virus itself to Asians and Asian Americans. 

However, as stated before, academic liberty applies as well to the students voicing their disagreement with the professor, insofar as they have a legitimate concern about the violence and racial discrimination that Asians and Asian Americans have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These worries are valid, and present the need for a healthy conversation about the balance of factual information and the impact language has on the lives of others, particularly those in marginalized groups. In order for that conversation to happen though, academic liberty has to be the foundation for fruitful dialogue. 

Having a discussion with respect for both sides is one that will be essential to maintaining a community and a university dedicated to truth, goodness and beauty in light of the Western intellectual tradition. Without this discussion — and its pre-supposing element academic liberty — it will be impossible to truly produce independent thinkers. 

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