Where Can I Debate Academic Freedom?

Academic Freedom

By: Kate Lechtenberg

This school year, I began working on a doctoral program in language, literacy, and culture at the University of Iowa’s College of Education, and in many ways, it feels like coming home.

Yes, I completed my BA and MLIS here at the University of Iowa as well, but I’m talking about a theoretical home. I am at home with people who think about literacy as a complex nexus of social, cultural, and political forces rather than a mechanistic, quantifiable commodity. I am at home with people who embrace principles of intellectual freedom and equitable access to diverse educational resources.

In short, I am at home in the progressive academy.

At home in the bubble

But feeling at home in the academy is dangerous right now. It’s easy to forget that just months ago, my convictions about the nature of literacy and the importance of intellectual freedom were not always shared my colleagues and administrators. It’s easy to forget that my research on literature instruction, equity, and social justice is viewed by some as non-academic progressive propaganda.

Staircase of an educational building, Athens Academy, Athens, Greece

In this academic bubble, it’s easy to be shocked by recent attacks on academic freedom like  the proposed limits on tenure in Iowa and Missouri. It’s tempting to laugh off a proposed bill in the Iowa legislature requiring a “partisan balance” at public universities.

And my instinct is to scoff at explicit critiques of critical inquiry like the recent state legislator’s threats to limit funding at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The UW Madison critique came as a result of objections to a course called “The Problem with Whiteness,” and when I read the article, my first thought was, “I need to take that class.”

I’m currently taking a class about children’s literature, and our focus is on examining power structures  and identity construction in literature. I love the class, but I worry that it’s dangerous for academics to have these conversations without confronting current attacks on teaching about social transformation and social justice.

We take these goals for granted in my graduate program, and they come from a theoretical framework I embrace as a reader, teacher, scholar and mother. But I know that I also have to look outside the university echo chamber. I have to think about how we, as educators and scholars, can respond to critiques like those we are seeing all around us. Ignoring them won’t make them go away; it will only widen the chasm between us.

Every teaching choice is political

Stanley Fish, literary critic and legal scholar from Florida International University argued recently in the Chronicle for Higher Education that “Citizen Formation is Not Our Job,” and while he disagreed with a National Association of Scholars report this month that encourages citizen activists to encourage legislators to withhold funding from universities that support social justice and civic engagement in coursework, Fish does agree that these progressive endeavors are political goals, not academic ones.

In his argument, he seems to suggests that “social justice” and “civic engagement” are political, but the approach suggested by the NAS — requiring a course in “traditional” American history and civic understand–is not political.  Instead, I would argue that any choice about what to teach or how to teach is political. If, as Fish and the NAS argue, teaching with the goal of social betterment is political, so is teaching to maintain the “traditional” social order.

But still, I wonder if I have silenced students like Tom Ciccotta, a senior a Bucknell University whose op-ed in the New York Times about the isolation of college libertarians and conservatives was a thoughtful reminder that the critiques against progressive orthodoxy in the academy do have merit. Reading his article won’t change my theoretical perspective, but it does call me to a new kind of action.

Where’s the academic freedom debate?

This is debate I want to have. But I won’t be having it with my professors or fellow graduate students in the halls of my institution of higher education. And we probably won’t be having it in the comments section of this blog.

So how can I join in this debate? Where is this debate happening? Or does a true debate between opposing ideas even exist? Maybe we’re all just firing our firmly-held, unchallenged beliefs into our own corners of the cloud. Maybe all that currently exists is parallel propaganda campaigns.

How should I engage with other perspectives? Should I respond to Stanley Fish’s article online? Should I speak at the Iowa legislature against the proposed bill about “partisan parity”? Should I start conversations about whiteness in the parent association at my children’s school?

I really don’t know where to begin. Let’s talk about how and where to begin real exchanges of ideas in the comments section below.


Kate LechtenbergKate Lechtenberg is in her first year of doctoral studies in Language, Literacy, and Culture at the University of Iowa. After teaching high school English for 10 years and working as a school librarian for four years, her research focuses on how affect, emotion, and morality intersect with the structural constraints of educational policies and standards. Lechtenberg teaches a young adult literature course for preservice teachers and English majors and a course on collection development for preservice teacher librarians in the School of Library and Information Science, and she is currently serving on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.

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