The Continuing Academic Battle

It continues because of human nature. Indeed, the tension between our egos and appropriate limits is always a problem; of course, power is implicit in the student/teacher relationship. We always think we know more than we do. We may get so used to standing at the front of the classroom and instructing our students in the metrics of sonnets that we may think we know about politics as well. And, of course, we tend to think we are right. These rather natural human tendencies have also been attracted to current theories which allow us to rationalize. Our relationships with our students have also been somewhat soured by many things, not the least of which are the numerous government regulations and the ease of litigation. But, in the end, we always need self-awareness, respect of those in front of us, and a healthy skepticism about our own motives.

The AAUP and its challenger, the young Turks’ National Association of Scholars set out these contrasts, first in the AAUP’s “Freedom in the Classroom (2007)” paper countered y the brief Peter Wood’s review “InTruth R Us ” in Inside Higher Ed, as well as Peter Wood and Stephen Balch’s response, a point by point dissection at the NAS site.

An interesting find is Peter Wood’s admiration for the AAUP’s statement of 1915. What strikes me is how much the patriarchal nature of the relation between faculty and student was recognized then and seems lost to modern critics, despite the current obsessive interest in power structures. But

Since there are no rights without corresponding duties, the considerations heretofore set down with respect to the freedom of the academic teacher entail certain correlative obligations. The claim to freedom of teaching is made in the interest in the integrity and of the progress of scientific inquiry; it is, therefore, only those who carry on their work in the temper of the scientific inquirer who may justly assert this claim. The liberty of the scholar within the university to set forth his conclusions, be they what they may, is conditional by their being conclusions gained by a scholar’s method and held in a scholar’s spirit; that is to say, they must be the fruits of competent and patient and sincere inquiry, and they should be set forth with dignity, courtesy, and temperateness of language. The university teacher, in giving instruction upon controversial matters, while he is under no obligation to hide his own opinion under a mountain of equivocal verbiage, should, if he is fit for his position, be a person of fair and judicial mind; he should, in dealing with such subjects, set forth justly, without suppression or innuendo, the divergent opinions of other investigators; he should cause his students to become familiar with the best published expressions of the great historic types of doctrine upon the questions at issue; and he should, above all, remember that his business is not to provide his students with ready-made conclusions, but to train them to think for themselves, and to provide them access to those materials which they need if they are to think intelligently.
I often remember another era; Hugh Luke taught the first generation romantics in 1966 at Nebraska. I’m not going to argue it was a great course – though that may have been my impression because of my general neurosis those years. Still, he loved the Romantics and when he read Wordsworth to us, the poet’s words lived. What was remarkable was that was the fall he worked hard in the campaign (my impression was he had a management position of some kind but don’t/didn’t know) of Ted Sorenson for governor. Sorenson lost (it isn’t just the football team that makes people call it the reddest state.) I only knew that because someone told me; I don’t think he ever brought up what must have been firmly held political views. (Of course, that he kept teaching also says something about the way politics was practiced.) At MLA a couple of years ago, I listened to a bibliographic paper on editing the papers of another romantic. The passage given out to the audience was directly connected to the current political scene and read aloud with a kind of nerdy melodrama and dogmatism. It wasn’t hard to imagine what went on in that teacher’s classes. In forty years much has changed and I have my doubts it is for the better.

And one of my favorite old teachers (he was my freshman English teacher and probably had as much of an influence on how I spent the next sixteen years as anyone did) was AAUP president a couple of decades ago. The AAUP’s role was often helpful and still can be. However, the series of positions that Balch & Wood describe indicate academics have been slowly succumbing to that great old temptation. The positions increasingly emphasize the importance of the teacher’s rights and increasingly ignore those of the student. But, then, this hubris makes them little different from a society which has increasingly valued rights over responsibilities, getting over renunciation, freedom over duty, expression of the ego over its submersion. But, of course, pendulums can swing too far either way. And students have increasingly gained a power that makes administrators (and teachers to a lesser degree) tremble – the power of litigation. Still, when our students are charmed by the language in front of them rather than us, we can join them in a rich experience.

4 thoughts on “The Continuing Academic Battle”

  1. Don’t mourn for me, boys. Organize–Joe Hill

    The note in the post about too much govt regulations..Idea: have your university accept absolutely no govt funding of any kind and tell the govt to leave you alone.
    Who accredits the accrediting agencies that accredit your colleges? The Dept of Education. And though they don’t do a very good job of it, nonetheless it is a govt involvement you should be warned against.

  2. What I said is misleading – government regulations that affect the classroom are generally from the office of disability services, whose requirements affect testing & lecture procedures. Rumors our students will be tested on the subject are less worrisome. If I’m not teaching them what they should know, I should know.

    Much we do is affected indirectly, of course, since we are a county & state funded organization where many have grants or loans from the federal government. Some direct pressure is welcome: it requires two semesters of American history, federal government, state government, composition, fine arts. Would that they expected both a writing and a rhetoric course (conflating them has led to diminished mastery); would that they expected American lit.

    However, fear of litigation lurks behind every paper marked as plagiarized, every offhand critical remark in a classroom, etc. And the fear that we will, somehow, say something that invades a student’s privacy (especially when talking to that student’s parents) is constant. (Of course, some think before they talk, but not me – so that’s always a problem.)

  3. Thank you for your temperate comment and rather moving story about Hugh Luke. I don’t know that his self-discipline in keeping his politics out of the classroom was exceptional for his generation of scholars, many of whom had strong ethic about such things, but it is a sturdy example of sturdiness of character and right principle rightly applied.

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