Institutionalized Attacks on Academic Freedom: The Impact of Mandates by State Departments of Education and National Accreditation Agencies on Academic Freedom

By John M. Elmore

Academic freedom in education has always been and continues to be a critical and irreplaceable component in fostering a participatory democracy and a critically engaged citizenry. In fact, when comparing the education systems of democratic and totalitarian societies throughout history, nothing contrasts more consistently than attitudes and practices toward intellectual freedom and control over what is taught in schools. Anton Makarenko (1955) wrote, “It was clear to me that details of human personality and behavior could be made from dies, simply stamped out en masse” (p.165). It’s safe to say that Makarenko was a true believer in standardized education.

Academic freedom and teacher autonomy were clearly viewed as counterproductive to the official truth in classrooms in Stalinist Italy. Within the authoritarian state, the teacher serves as its instrument, merely carrying out the will of those in power by transmitting a predefined version of truth, or what Amy Gutmann (1987) would call a version of the “good life.” Standardized education and stringent control over content are hallmarks of the authoritarian state and thus must be fervently rejected within democratic institutions. These divergent perspectives on the purposes and practices of education weren’t missed by early American proponents of democracy and individual liberty. Thomas Jefferson (1820) said, “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” There can be little doubt that one reason the founding fathers left the education of the people to state and local government was to encourage diversity of thought, differing opinions being the lifeblood of democracy. Higher education has historically carried the mantle of this cause; much of that effort has rested on the fundamental principle of academic freedom in our nation’s classrooms and the institutional integrity of our colleges and universities.

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