Invigorating the Classroom

By Ernst Benjamin

In a lengthy two-part, online essay titled “Politicizing the Classroom,” Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, argues that the AAUP’s recent report Ensuring Academic Freedom in Politically Controversial Academic Personnel Decisions is an effort to politicize the university. He advocates, as if it were an alternative, that the university focus on improving the quality of student learning. I disagree with his critique, and particularly his contrived assumption that advocacy and learning are contradictory. 

After all, the arguments he puts forth, which certainly advocate his particular perspective, would be entirely appropriate in a course on higher education or professional ethics. As would be, I believe, the rejoinder that follows. We publish our reports for comment because we understand that debate may serve to clarify our respective points of view, improve our mutual understanding, and assist help readers or students to improve on both of us and formulate their own conclusions. That is why the freedom to advocate and debate diverse views invigorates the classroom and is as integral to the university as are dispassionate discourse and analysis. 

Nonetheless, the fundamental AAUP principle on which Wood and I agree is too important to overlook on the way to engaging in the mixed pleasures of intellectual combat: “All academic personnel decisions, including new appointments and renewals of appointments, should rest on considerations that demonstrably pertain to the effective performance of the academic’s professional responsibilities.” 

We may be able to further resolve our disagreements if I emphasize what had seemed to me quite obvious. The AAUP statement plainly recommends that faculty members be evaluated on the basis of the quality of their professional work as actually manifest in their teaching, scholarship, and service. There is no necessary link between specific political or social views, collegiality, or advocacy, on the one hand, and the quality of research, instruction, or service, on the other.

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