Academic Freedom in High School and Kindergarten

On March 30, 2010, the Dailyer Nebraskan reported in its lead headline, "Texas Board of Education Votes to Place Jesus Among Founding Fathers in New Textbooks." The picture below the headline depicted the signing of the Declaration of Independence, with Jesus Christ restored, according to the caption, "to his rightful place next to America's founding fathers."

The Dailyer Nebraskan claims to be even more daily than the Daily Nebraskan, the official student newspaper of the University of Nebraska−Lincoln, but in fact is much less daily and much less serious. Its spoof, however, was disturbingly close to reality.

The reality is that the Texas Board of Education did indeed make changes to the social studies curriculum that were deemed by historians to be unjustified by historical considerations. But the problem goes deeper than this.

The problem is not that the Texas Board was mistaken in its history. After all, they're not historians. The problem is not that they had political and religious biases. So do we all.

The problem is that it is not the role of a governing board to make curricular decisions. Students are entitled to a curriculum determined on academic grounds by teachers and other experts.

If a college or university Board of Regents or Trustees were to manipulate the history curriculum there would be cries of academic freedom being violated. And rightly so. But why is it any less a violation of academic freedom for students in elementary or secondary schools to be subjected to curricula determined by elected officials with no relevant expertise?

One possible answer is that academic freedom is for college because college students are adults. Students in elementary and secondary schools, it might be argued, are not yet ready for intellectual freedom. They must first learn whatever the community wants taught. Only then can we take a chance on exposing them to real history or real biology and letting them think for themselves.

Research in cognitive, developmental and educational psychology, however, shows that learning and development are active self-regulated processes that require the freedom to seek information, to formulate and express your own ideas, and to engage in discussion. Intellectual freedom is crucial to intellectual development from kindergarten to college.

Young children do differ from college students in their ability to understand and operate in an environment of intellectual freedom. They may, for example, fail to grasp that the views of their teacher are not necessarily those of the school or that their peers have a right to hold views they find objectionable. Even elementary school students, however, show developing understanding of such matters.

Secondary students, in contrast to those in the early elementary years, are much like college students in their ability to understand and function in a marketplace of diverse theoretical, political, religious and other ideas (for a review of the relevant research, see my Adolescent rationality and development, 3rd edition, 2011). If there is a line to be drawn, it should be drawn between elementary and secondary education rather than between secondary and higher education.

But even elementary education is not so different. Perhaps we can't run a kindergarten like a college, but we can provide students of all ages with a curriculum determined by teachers and other experts on academic grounds and encourage them to figure things out, say what they think, explain their reasons, and discuss their ideas. Students and their teachers require academic freedom at all levels of education.

To be serious about academic freedom in the 21st century, however, we must dispense with the 20th century notion that the First Amendment will save us. More on that in my next post.