The Insidious Chilling of Academic Freedom

This entry is not about the morality of homosexuality, sexual morality, pedophilia, or disability discrimination. It is about free speech, academic freedom and a small glimpse into how our institutions of higher learning essentially brainwash students into a liberal mindset under threats and dismissals. By disagreeing with the orthodoxy of the day and a school’s acceptance of that orthodoxy to the exclusion of any competing thought chills free speech in the classroom and renders those who disagree with that orthodoxy academic pariahs.

A perfect example is the prevailing opinion on homosexuality. Prior to 1974, the American Psychological Association defined homosexuality as a mental illness. Every student entering the field of clinical psychology or psychiatry was taught this. Along the way, due to changing views, mores and what have you, the APA changed its definition to “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” a nice way of saying that a person was “eligible” for psychological intervention if they were homosexual, but felt uncomfortable with that homosexuality. The latest definition dropped the “uncomfortable” aspect and simply eliminated homosexuality as a mental illness at all.

We can disagree with this chain of events all we want, but that is not the purpose of this article. The fact is that as concerns the psychiatric and psychological community, before 1974 this was the prevailing academic and professional orthodoxy. Students of psychiatry and clinical psychology were taught this. There is no doubt that many students and even practicing professionals likely disagreed with the APA before 1974. No doubt, many disagreed in the intervening period when homosexuality was a mental illness if it was “ego dystonic.” And there are likely student and professionals today who believe in the pre-1974 definitions of homosexuality equating it with a mental illness.

But, there is a problem with these “learned” boards that make these decisions and it extends to other areas. For example, suppose the board making these decisions consists of 100 members. In the case of the APA, is homosexuality any less a deviancy if the vote is 100-0 as opposed to 51-49? Another example would be the United Nations panel on global climate change. Because an expert panel says so, therefore it is. But, what if it really isn’t so? Obviously, we often defer to experts in many areas, but if these experts are taken at their absolute word as if that word came from on high, there would be no progress in any area. Academia would become a training ground for automatons taught to spread and reinforce the prevailing orthodoxy and dogma. Too often, that orthodoxy and dogma leans considerably to the Left.

As concerns academia, however, we are dealing with a whole other monster. While these panels of experts usually issue the decree, government acceptance of those decrees and then placing those decrees into educational orthodoxy tend to serve as a chilling effect on academic free speech. And it happens daily in our colleges and universities and even in K-12 educational settings. Today, officially homosexuality is not considered a mental illness nor even a deviancy. As such, this “belief” permeates into how students are taught in college. In the current case in Hawaii, for example, a student seeking teacher certification at the University of Hawaii expressed a thought in an academic setting that questioned that prevailing orthodoxy. I confess to not knowing the exact details of what the Hawaii teacher certification program entails regarding how one deals with a child who confides in their teacher that they are homosexual. That is not the point. The point is that an actual student expressing a competing thought with that orthodoxy- a comment made in an academic setting most likely as a thought exercise- was expelled from that program.

The Hawaii judicial system upheld the expulsion of that student. It is one thing if the student was disruptive and held the class hostage to a debate without end. But, that is what did not happen. The student in question expressed an opinion that went against what the University of Hawaii deemed was outside the prevailing orthodoxy and then expelled that student. It needs to be noted that there were other comments made by this student that involved sexuality of minors and children with disabilities. Even still, of greater importance, is the fact that in no instance did this student actually discriminate against anyone with a disability nor did he discriminate against a homosexual or even make a suggestion that he would should he become a certified teacher in Hawaii.

Take a more benign issue like how a simple math problem should be taught in school. Under the Core Curriculum State Standards- a curriculum I had the unfortunate experience of following one day- a simple problem like 1,200 times 3 was broken down into five discrete steps to get the answer 3,600. Previously, the student would be taught that 3 times 12 is 36, and since there are two zeroes in 1,200, just add them to the end of 36 to get the answer: 3,600. But, that simple method is NOT the prevailing orthodoxy. Although the particular school in which I teach gives a wink and a nod to the easier method, they are an exception. In schools throughout the country, children are taught the CCSS method of getting that same answer. Likewise, the next generation of teachers currently being trained cannot even consider the easier method because it violates the prevailing orthodoxy- the CCSS.

Another example is physical science where students are taught almost verbatim from “An Inconvenient Truth” that climate change is a fact, that it is caused by humans, and that only humans- by foregoing fossil fuels- can save the world. Why? Because it is the prevailing orthodoxy because a group of educational experts devising a curriculum in the physical sciences deemed it so. Why? Because a United Nations panel of experts deemed it so. While a K-12 student cannot be suspended or expelled for expressing an opposing view- say, the earth has repeatedly gone through cycles of heat and cold and that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was higher in the earth’s past way before fossil fuels- their valid expressions (often based on their own research) is either denigrated or swept aside. Likewise, the disbelievers of the Al Gore mantra are sometimes ostracized by their peers. And rest assured, the student will be marked wrong unless they choose that man is the main reason behind global warming. So, the student colors in the little circle next to “humans,” aces the test and goes on his way.

In the Hawaii case, there were comments made by the plaintiff, Mark Oyama, during classroom discussions that set up “red flags” in the minds of instructors. For example, Oyama had questioned age of consent laws and laws designed to thwart online child predators. In another class, an instructor questioned his unrealistic approach to teaching children with disabilities. The problem for Oyama, however, may be the build up to the denial of his application to student-teach, a necessary requirement to gain teacher certification. During one in-school practicum, his mentor teacher actually gave him negative ratings on several criteria. His only positive ratings were in knowledge of his subject matter.

In reality, this may not be the best test case illustrative of the problem in higher academia. We often, after-the-fact, question why dots were not connected when something horrible happens, but when those in charge are given the leeway to actually connect dots, they are likewise criticized (think CIA and pre-9/11 or the NSA controversy today). In this particular case, Oyama- a candidate to be a high school teacher- questioned age of consent laws. Was his questioning a mere academic thought exercise, or was it a clue that because of his stated views he had an increased chance of actually violating these laws? Because he expressed concern about laws designed to thwart online child predators, was this an academic thought exercise on his part, or did it illustrate the possibility he could engage in that behavior in the future? Regarding his views on teaching disabled students, was this an academic thought exercise on his part or was it a clue to how he would actually teach a disabled child in a classroom after receiving certification? These are decisions the University of Hawaii had to make before reaching that certification stage. Unfortunately for Oyama, leaving aside his classroom musings, there was enough negative reports on his actual teaching in an actual classroom to make him not the best candidate for academic freedom martyrdom. However, although we can agree that online predators targeting minors should be discouraged and there is a need for age of consent laws, they still nevertheless present legal questions that should be probed and debated.

However, there are other cases where students are reprimanded for nothing other than their academic musings. Probably the worst case I have heard involved a student expelled from Notre Dame University for reading a book on how Notre Dame combated the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana in the university library. Apparently, the cover of the book- a robed Klansman- offended a passing-by African-American student. And there are countless other examples from public and private universities and colleges in practically every state where students receive some kind of punishment for what amounts to expressing a thought that may ago against the status quo or the prevailing orthodoxy of the day.

Harassment is usually the reason cited for these actions. Technically, anything expressed by anyone has the potential to offend another “anyone.” One man’s musings are another man’s harassment. The question is when the comment crosses the line and all too often university administrators, because of federal civil rights laws, err on the side of being overly cautious and reprimand or punish the alleged offender. Often, this is done through what barely passes as some form of due process where the cards are stacked considerably against the accused. In order to achieve success, as defined by the college, the student’s best choice is to tow the university’s politically correct line and keep their thoughts to themselves and comments to themselves.

As noted earlier, Mark Oyama is not the best poster boy for this trend. His views on age of consent laws, online child predators and teaching the disabled are clearly outside the mainstream. However, there are countless other cases where students have been reprimanded and punished through suspension or expulsion for stating a view that was not politically correct, that questioned the status quo in academia, or that did not conform exactly with the findings of learned panel. This is the antithesis of what higher learning is supposed to be. Ironically, many of those writing these speech codes and enforcing them are the very same people in the 1960s who were leading sit-ins at Columbia and Harvard and Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin. Hypocrisy has come full circle.