Academic Freedom

The following two pre-Internet quotes provide an excellent example of the vision and the reality of academic freedom in schools:

The Vision

Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not allow laws that cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. ... The classroom is particularly a 'marketplace of ideas.' The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] that through any kind of authoritative selection .

The Reality

The effort to pull ideology out of schools is evident in battles over history textbooks. ... (M)ost students read carefully censored books. The pursuit of 'neutrality' often leads to censorship. The American Textbook Publishers Institute has counseled publishers 'to avoid statements that might prove offensive to economic, religious, racial or social groups or any civil, fraternal, patriotic, or philanthropic societies in the whole United States.' Textbook manufacturers appear to have responded in some cases by deleting materials reflecting cultural differences that might have offended someone. Interest group pressures from diverse ideological camps have resulted in the deletion of materials that would undercut the perception of an American monopoly on decency, as variously defined. Business interests have occasionally intervened in textbook selection to remove materials considered hostile to the "American system." American policy is sanitized. Books rarely report questionable government action.

... Perhaps the most striking feature of history textbooks is that they minimize the role of dissent in our history. Government decisions that appear decent or beneficial are often portrayed without any of the political controversy that created them .

Most states and districts have established careful processes to determine what information is provided to students. This process also frequently acts in such a way as to limit exposure to controversial viewpoints or subjects. When the Internet becomes a primary source of information, students will be exposed to a much wider range of information and ideas. Some of this material will prove to be offensive to economic, religious, racial, social groups, civil, fraternal, patriotic, and/or philanthropic societies in the U.S. Some of this material may challenge the U.S. monopoly on "decency" or correctness, as variously defined. Some materials may directly challenge or raise questions about the appropriateness of the actions of the U.S. corporations or the U.S. government.

When teachers use the Internet with their students, decisions about the appropriateness of certain materials are no longer under the control of school textbook publishers or school textbook selection committees. The teacher bears the primary responsibility for the selection of materials and the teacher will bear the primary responsibility of assisting students in evaluating and analyzing the material. It is quite easy to anticipate that the use of the Internet in the classroom will provide a vehicle to expose students to a wide range of perspectives that have not traditionally been accessible in the classroom. And controversy will be inevitable.

Which students are going to be better prepared to be effective citizens in today's complicated world. Those who receive carefully sanitized information or those who, under the guidance of effective teachers, are exposed to a wide range of information and develop the skills to ascertain the truthfulness of information, distinguish fact from opinion, and engage in discussions about controversial issues while demonstrating tolerance and respect for those who hold divergent views?

The changes in education that will be brought about because of the expanded access to controversial information made possible by the Internet will be significant. Clearly, the best way to avoid unnecessary controversy is to place a high priority on providing professional development opportunities for teachers to prepare them to handle this new learning environment. Districts that fail to provide for adequate teacher preparation will be the ones that face the greatest difficulties.

If we expect schools to be able to prepare students "for active participation in the pluralistic, often contentious society" we could ask for no better source of materials to accomplish this than those found on the Internet. Although there may be some unsettling terrain to negotiate in the future, access to the Internet will indeed provide our students, our future citizens, with "wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas" and, as a result, education will undergo profound change.