Free exchange of ideas vital to our society

Although most citizens recognize the many values to be gained from receiving a good education, disagreement exists over what that means.

By Al Lehmann

Although most citizens recognize the many values to be gained from receiving a good education, wide disagreement exists over what a “good education” actually is.

Further to this is academic freedom – what should be taught, by whom, at whose expense, and to whose benefit. Who should decide these questions?

In a culture that trumpets the benefits of freedom, one would think that academic freedom, a free market in ideas (tempered by social and professional criticism), would be of considerable value.

Educational researchers broadly agree that an educated person is one who has “instrumental skills” (such skills as literacy and numeracy), representative knowledge of culture(s) including historical perspectives, expertise and achievement represented by specific credentials, empathy with one’s fellow man, and a concern for the world beyond our immediate day-to-day experience.

Educated people can manage their money and do other mathematically related tasks, read something beyond the average newspaper, discuss at least some current and historical events (and vote based on their knowledge), exhibit tolerance of others’ differences, show they are qualified to perform some kind of useful work, and take a willing interest in the broader world.

The question remains: how does one get there? Aside from providing taxpayer-funded daycare, public schools initiate the formal learning processes for most children, and colleges, technical schools (with apprenticeships of various sorts), and universities refine them.

Given the training demanded of professional educators, society has pretty much handed over questions about course content and instructional methods to them. With some legitimate wariness, we trust their judgment.

In recent years, however, this trust has been diminished, for a wide variety of reasons including controversy over values, economic uncertainty, social and technical change, and political expediency.

Many religious groups run their own schools with at least the partial purpose of imbuing specific religious beliefs into their children. Given separation of church and state (for good reason), such instruction has no place in public schools beyond objective presentation of basic facts.

In post-secondary institutions also exist certain orthodoxies. While many scientists may believe in God, few deny or would not teach the basic mechanisms of evolutionary science. The so-called Chicago School of Economics (and its offshoots, such as the University of Calgary) has been pushing “free market” orthodoxy for the better part of half a century; Marxist theory would not be particularly welcome there except as a subject of scorn.

A recent controversy at Carleton University concerned a course offered supposedly debunking anthropogenic global warming. The fact that the instructor had clear ties to the energy industry and that no original research supporting human-caused climate change was actually presented for analysis in the course created some doubt as to the objectivity of the course’s content or instruction. Other academics who recognized this weakness criticized the course’s flaws, presumably exposing the fraud.

Today our federal government is systematically limiting public access to federally funded scientists, forcing them to get political permission to present their findings on many issues to a public hungry for such knowledge. Such policy is wildly hypocritical and extremely destructive. Harper’s Conservatives seem to have a particular paranoia about scientific findings to do with climate change, implications of which might demand we limit the orgy of development within the tar sands.

Similarly, in British Columbia a Liberal government intent upon promoting a particular economic ideology (which involves diminishing the influence of trade and professional unions) is using legislative fiat both to bust the teachers’ union and to dramatically limit teachers’ control of course content and delivery. Under both governments academic freedom is clearly disvalued.

Canadians are not well served by such changes. The free exchange of ideas is critical to the maintenance of a free society. Whatever its occasional flaws, academic freedom is one of our country’s freedoms that must be upheld.

Al Lehmann teaches English in Terrace, BC.