Tenure and Academic Freedom


The concept of academic freedom has a history that reaches are far back as 399 B.C., when Socrates was forced to defend his teaching after he had been accused of “impiety.”

A policy protecting academic freedom was first formalized as an official policy in 1574 by the University of Helmstädt, again in 1575 by the University of Leiden and later by the University of Heidelberg in 1652.

Nearly all teachers, educators, school administrators, university professors and a large majority of people who are not connected to the teaching profession agree that the freedom to think for one’s self, free from the influence of state, church or a “peer” group, is critical to the overall improvement of our society.  Even history scholars whose scholarly interests stop at being addicted to the History Channel recognize the iconic cases where academic freedom was not merely infringed but nearly murdered, as it was during the heresy trial of Galileo and that crowning jewel of America’s legal silliness represented by the so-called Scopes “Monkey Trial.”

Tenure is a concept that was originally intended to protect great minds such as Galileo, Copernicus, Isaac Newton and Tycho Brahe, whose works reformulated human conceptions of the universe.  At the university level, protecting intellectual speculation is still important.  People at the level of these intellectual giants are a rare commodity.

For the sake of argument, let’s say only 1% of the total population falls in that group. These are the folks who consistently score in the 99th percentile on those standardized tests we’ve all taken, such as the college boards.  With a population of about 315 million, that would mean there are 3,150,000 people of that caliber currently living in the country.

According to the U.S. Census in 2000, there were approximately 6,200,000 teachers in the country.

How many of the 3,150,000 geniuses in the country are teachers?  How many might be doctors, or attorneys or stock brokers?  Of those that actually are teachers, how many teach in grammar schools or high schools?  Or to put it another way, how many of these 3.150,000 geniuses are members of teacher’s unions?

Unfortunately tenure has evolved and changed over time from being a form of protection from intellectual coercion to being merely a guarantee of lifetime employment, similar in result to being elected to Congress from a highly gerrymandered district.

Should teachers today be accorded lifetime employment regardless of what they are teaching, or how well they teach?  Isn’t it odd that Progressives, who are all about demolishing old and outdated traditions, demand that their employment, compensation and lifestyles be protected by traditions that date back to the Middle Ages?

Is academic freedom the same as the freedom of speech which is protected by the First Amendment?  Even the great jurist Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes declared that the First Amendment does not give a person the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater unless of course there actually is a fire.

It would appear that the principle of academic freedom trumps the First Amendment.  Educators under pressure to “publish or perish” in the quest for tenure (and the resultant job security that tenure provides) often expose their students to ludicrous ideas that have impacts far beyond their worth.  Keynesian economics comes to mind as an example.  Anthropogenic climate change runs a close second.

At the collegiate and post-graduate levels, academic freedom does indeed need to be protected to insure unfettered intellectual inquiry, vigorous debate of differing points of view and the arguing of hypotheses and their logical underpinnings.

Sadly this very same intellectual inquiry, vigorous debate of differing points of view and the arguing of hypotheses and their logical underpinnings are all the stuff of myths with roots in a long forgotten past.  Today, tenure, at least at the collegiate and post-graduate levels, is often withheld from fully qualified teachers who do not subscribe to ideas favored by Liberal-Progressive-Democrat group-think.

Even if there has been a visible deterioration in academic rigor at the post-secondary level, the concept of free inquiry should be protected…at that level.  What about elementary and high-school teachers?  While college students are generally mature enough to at least look around for proof (or at least evidence) when someone yells “Fire!”,  younger children who are in grades K-6 are definitely liable to be influenced by silly ideas.  Middle school and high school students might have a chance to question, however briefly, the validity of what common sense is telling them about what they are being spoon fed.

Tenure, which is based on the idea of protecting intellectual exploration, is now simply an excuse for teacher unions to demand lifetime job security while wrapping themselves in the self-righteous cloak of academic freedom.  Moreover, teachers in primary and secondary education are not being paid to break new theoretical ground.  They are being paid for innovation in the delivery of widely accepted facts and theories to insure that their students have a strong informational foundation for either seeking employment or in pursuing a college education.  Teaching sexual techniques would not generally be considered a prerequisite for either goal, yet it is protected by the mantra of academic freedom and the union demands for tenure.

The strength of the influence of elementary school teachers is something all of us experienced as children.  After a remarkably short period in the classroom, I was convinced that a sentence that began “Teacher said…” carried significantly more weight than a sentence that might have started “The President said…”.

Some things don’t change.

With so many states modifying the ground rules for negotiations with teacher unions, the very concept of tenure should be one of the first things to be eliminated.  Primary and secondary teachers should be aware that they will be viewed as technicians, and be directed to adhere to a syllabus that reflects generally accepted community standards for the material to be taught.  That is the essence of Federalism, where local control exerts maximum influence.  Teachers who feel deprived of some sort of freedom can always listen to the words of Governor Chris Christie who said in response to a teacher’s complaints of being underpaid in spite of her sterling credentials:  “Well, you don’t have to do it.”

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About Jim Yardley

Retired after 30 years as a financial controller for a variety of manufacturing firms, a two-tour Vietnam veteran, and independent voter.
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