Guest Columnist

John Richard Schrock

Academic Freedom Has Professional Limits


Critical Race Theory (CRT) has led to unnecessary alarm across the country at both K–12 and higher education levels. One portion of the public believes teachers should only teach what their local or state school boards approve. Another portion believes that teachers have some sort of absolute academic freedom and unlimited free speech. Both are wrong. It is far more complex. 

    Although free speech and academic freedom are often used interchangeably, they are different.  Academic freedom is exercised by teachers and professors within classrooms with their students. It is an attribute of the teaching profession. Free speech occurs in public and outside of the classroom. 

    Consider the following "teachings":
    A geology teacher claims the earth is flat.  
    A history teacher states the Holocaust never happened. 
    A math teacher contends two-plus-two equals five.
    If these are the true actions of these teachers (and not a teaching method to get students to think and arrive at the real answers), these teachers can and should be fired for incompetence.
    When a California science teacher contended he had an academic freedom to refuse to teach evolution when it was part of the curriculum—he lost. In Peloza v. Capistrano (1994), the court ruled that school districts can require teachers to teach evolution. Earlier in Webster v. New Lenox (1990) the court ruled that school districts can prohibit the teaching of creationism. And in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District (2005), the judge ruled that a supposedly non-religious "alternative" view of biological evolution called "intelligent design" could not be taught as science. 

    In all cases, the courts turned to the profession to determine the legitimacy of the content. —Not the local or state school boards. —Not the whims of the teacher. And any university teacher ed program that trains future geology teachers that the earth is flat, or math student teachers that two-plus-two equals five will lose its accreditation because it contradicts the current knowledge-base of those professions.

    The consequences of mis-teaching are real. Any country where the bulk of citizens believe the earth is flat or two-plus-two equals five is not going to launch a satellite into space. The last veterans who witnessed the liberation of Auschwitz are nearly gone, but the extensive documentation remains and a country that denies the Holocaust will feed future supremist movements. Yesterday's history matters today, or we would not bother to teach it.
    Countries will downplay their mistakes. Japan today omits from its history books major terrible atrocities committed in World War II. The Tulsa race riot of 1921 was not in our history books., but it was of a scale that deserves to be included. Good teachers promote reasoned discussion. They do not impose guilt trips. Teachers are frontline professionals representing their professions. And that is where professional content is defined. —Again, not by local or state school boards. —Not by legislatures. The courts ultimately turn to the profession to define legitimate content. 

     Education Week recently reviewed the CRT laws just passed by ten states. The most recent act in Tennessee was a complaint that "...a lesson on Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to desegregate an elementary school in Louisiana, made white students feel uncomfortable" and thus violated their new CRT law. If Japan can hide its past, we should too? –Because some might be "uncomfortable?

    When the Arkansas legislature made it a crime for medical doctors to perform fully professional treatments and surgery on trans kids, they violated the jurisdiction of the medical profession. As more states strive to regulate what the teaching profession considers factual, they are joining ranks with autocrats in Poland and Hungary and Belarus that choose to hide or distort their history, and compel educational professionals to be unprofessional. 
    Unfortunately, it is a shortcoming of our system that it will take time for this intrusion into teacher professionalism to make its way to a higher court. Meanwhile, this growing tendency for legislatures to dictate professional practice will take a toll, in veteran teachers resigning and in college students diverting away from pursing teaching.