The Glorious Core of Academic Freedom

While it’s hard to argue against the overall success of charter schools at the elementary and high school levels, one wonders about tenure at the post-secondary level. Is academic tenure at a junior college, or university, a vital defense against those who would erode academic freedom? Or is it a nice cozy union benefit for very well paid workers? Furchtgott-Roth and Meyer’s book Disinherited: How Washington is Betraying America’s Young certainly takes aim at teacher unions at the first two levels of schooling and how they protect mediocre, incompetent, or outright abusive teachers who may do considerable damage to their students. But the issue of academic tenure at the post-secondary level is also a matter well worth shining a light on.

Many universities undoubtedly state that they are constantly polling their students to see who and what is working well with those who consume the rather expensive learning ladled out across the land. And professors can get fired even under tenure, although one suspects that cause for dismissal is not an easily achieved thing in the academic world. Tenure was born around 1915 by the American Association of University Professors about 12 years after a notorious firing at the University of Texas. George Bruce Halsted - a celebrated mathematician from Princeton who possessed a near-aerodynamic mustache which was the butt of his student's jokes - criticized U of T for passing over a talented assistant of his in favor of well-connected local boy. He was fired and perhaps his case gave impetus to the raising of tenure on campuses around the country a decade or two later. While freedom to criticize religious dogma - a previous cause for dismissal although these cases were often overturned in court - was another motivator, it seems avoiding mediocrity was one of academic tenture's original prime movers.

Does tenure today protect or avoid mediocrity? A debate at Yale, say, on the subject would seem to risk a little bias on the part of those in attendance. What do students think? And what do university administrations think? The growing number of non-tenured academic positions are criticized as leaving untenured professors vulnerable. But vulnerable economically? Or intellectually? If it is all about job security then tenure is an economic entitlement and nothing more. If it is about intellectual autonomy then maybe some faculties could display, for example, a little less zeal in persecuting those who don't hold to the politically correct line of the moment. Daren Jonescu - a Canadian academic who has a habit of meditating on America - had this to say in gloriously provocative article in American Thinker:

"The risks of self-determination, and the uncertain outcomes of rational agency, are the glorious core of freedom. The entitlement mentality obviates those glories, and hence produces a mind unreceptive to, and disdainful of, true freedom."

As Jonescu notes, the proverbial free lunch was originally an astonishingly brave irony by Socrates at his trial, where he understood that his own death was the likely outcome. While we don't really need a sociology professor at Michigan, say, to go looking for a little hemlock when her research comes under criticism, perhaps academic tenure merits a little soul searching inside the ivory tower over what exactly it achieves in today's universities and colleges.

Posted by Keeley at May 12, 2015 7:26 PM
Comment #395543

“While it’s hard to argue against the overall success of charter schools at the elementary and high school levels, one wonders about tenure at the post-secondary level.”

Just how hard is it to argue the “overall success” of charter schools?

A “CREDO” in 27 states study showed that charter schools were no better or no worse than public schools in the same areas.

“Furchtgott-Roth and Meyer’s book Disinherited: How Washington is Betraying America’s Young…”

Have you actually read the book?

It seems that the authors interviewed “several” students out of tens of millions for their book.


Now I don’t doubt the authors qualifications, but…

The “low hanging” fruit of incompetent, tenured teachers has been a steady drumbeat from the right for decades, but never is the hard work of the vast majority of teachers cited.
Teaching is, at best, a hard, low paying, thankless job, and with the advent of “No Child Left Behind” we are expecting more from teachers, and giving them less to work with, than ever before. Having to drag Little Johnny, or Jane malcontent along with the rest of the students doesn’t make a teachers job any easier.

The job, and the criticism doesn’t change much at the collage level either, with students that believe merely being in class entitles them to a diploma.


Posted by: Rocky Marks at May 15, 2015 9:20 AM
Comment #395544

Hear, hear, Rocky well said. My sister is overworked in the public school system administratively in my area and she has always maintained that it is disgusting that the average pay for a teacher is much less than the average pay for someone to manage a convenience store and gas station(I have no metrics for it but I am inclined to take her word for that). After all she maintains, “it would seem it is more important that we pay someone more to take care of our donuts than to pay someone to help educate and care for our children”. And I concur. Quite frankly I am tired of all the right wing rhetoric about how terrible the public education system has become when all they do is try to denigrate teachers, deny funding, and critique everything about it without any suggestions to help. How about trying to help, conservatives?

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