Thursday, August 30, 2007

What is academic freedom?

In response to a comment on the previous post, and a note in the
Chronicle of Higher Education about a professor at Virginia Tech who used the massacre as a example in a lecture and then got reprimanded for it, let's use this as an excuse to talk about academic freedom.

Oh, and let me just say that the idea of locking the doors of all the classrooms at Virginia Tech seems a little extreme in some ways, and just common sense in others. Thoughts, anyone? Would you want to be the student or the teacher if there was a chance you could be trapped in the room if there were a real emergency?

In science, academic freedom is usually not nearly as complicated as it is in the humanities.

I think the best recent example is the dispute about whether or not to teach evolution (science) vs. "intelligent design" (humanities).

With the separation of church and state, one might expect that religious studies would be kept out of public schools, but it's not quite so black and white as that.

Although it was never explicitly described to me in any lecture or textbook while I was in school, I always understood academic freedom to be the freedom "to study what you want."

Maybe this also includes "to lecture on what you want" and "to publish what you want", but my understanding is that in most cases it doesn't include those two things at all.

Nor does it include "to get funded to work on what you want."

I guess in the ideal situation, parents would never complain, and no one would worry about what anybody else worked on. Maybe in a scenario where money was endless and jobs and schools were plentiful?

So, not what we have right now.

I'm a little puzzled by this commenter who says you can't have academic freedom until much later in your career. I presume what is meant by this is that, until you're really established, it can be extremely difficult to work on anything outside the mainstream, be that alternative hypotheses or totally weird systems like some kind of primitive octopus.

There aren't any rules saying you can't work on what you want, except for the kinds of rules that say you shouldn't be using some stem cells (thank you, President's religion).

And you shouldn't be implanting them into animals or people without approval, or working on P3 level viruses without a P3 level containment facility. That kind of thing that is as much in the interest of safety as it is research.

Seems to me that in public schools, and especially in the humanities, it can be much more gray. Some books, at some schools, are considered too racy. Etc. But again that gets back to restrictions on teaching, not on studying.

Here is the Wikipedia definition, which basically says that a range of activities should be covered in pursuit of knowledge, which I take to mean that lecturing and publishing should be allowed, but then they add this clause about avoiding controversial matter unrelated to the subject.

And I love the line where they say that tenure protects academic freedom. That made me laugh.

Use your power for good, tenured people, not evil!

So how do you define controversial? Is this stuff about not teaching evolution really controversial, or is it just a bunch of fanatical nonsense? Should we take it head on as a serious threat, or just try to maneuver around it and outlast it?

Should we be moving to Canada? At what point do we declare science in the US lost to the religious nutjobs?

Q: What's controversial?

A: Ever read the comments on this blog?

note added in proof: when trying to publish this post, I got an error I've never gotten before: Your request could not be processed. Please try again.

What, so the censor can get a better look at it? Or did I say something controversial??

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At 9:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

a friend of mine finished his 2nd year of postdocing and landed a tenure track job as an assistant professor with his own lab. talk about academic freedom! i asked him how he did it and he says, "luck."

oh really.


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