The degree and scope of academic freedom has been a perennial topic of debate. But generally, it is the governing authorities who have their way, with students having to toe the line. In an ideal world, though, students will play a significant role in determining the courses and subjects to be included in their curriculums. While students in primary and secondary stages of education need to have a standard basic curriculum, those reaching college level should be given more autonomy. This relaxation is recommended keeping in mind that college students are entering adulthood and have a right to choose the type of individuals they want to become. (Robertson & Smith, 1999, p.69) As the system functions today, college students are forced to conform to an educational model that was not designed in their interests. In other words, the existing educational system serves to indoctrinate young minds into obedient servants of the established social order. At the top of the social pyramid are the business and political elites, whose interests are reflected in the design of curricula. Hence, though it might lead to radical social upheavals, allowing greater freedom of choice within college campuses is the right way to go.
Let us look at the rationale offered by those against freedom of choice in curricula and identify flaws in their arguments. A prominent advocate for less academic freedom was the sociologist Mortimer Adler, who stated that, left to their own choices, some students “will ‘downgrade’ their own education; therefore, adults should control these crucial choices so that such downgrading does not occur.” (Noddings, 2006, p.285) This fear is overstated, for college authorities can devise ways of ensuring that certain basic standards are met. Moreover, by what criteria are courses judged good and bad? In other words, the notion of ‘downgrading’ is very subjective. As John Dewey noted in his lectures,
“a course in cooking, well planned and well executed, can induce critical thinking, increase cultural literacy, and provide valuable skills – it can be a “good” course. In contrast, a course in algebra may discourage critical thinking, add nothing to cultural literacy, and lead students to despair of acquiring useful skills – it can be a “bad” course.” (Noddings, 2006, p.285)
Considering that John Dewey was the most influential educationist of last century, his views have to be heeded to. The essence of Dewey’s argument is that by there is more merit than what is apparent in courses such as cooking than what the academic establishment will admit. Moreover, if students are allowed to create courses that would satisfy their natural inclinations, they are bound to participate in the learning process more willingly and thoroughly, enhancing the final outcome.
To alleviate the concerns of those who fear lack of norms and standards in giving complete freedom, we need to qualify the sort of freedom offered them. While the coercive authoritarian nature of standardized curriculum is one extreme, a permissive, hands-off freedom given to students will be the opposite extreme. By applying moderation, a system that is realistic and yet demanding could be designed. Teacher counseling and guidance that approximates parental interest in students is worth pursuing. One should also remember that students can never be given equal opportunity by force. Such a tendency is against democratic principles. Instead, what we need to do, is to “live with our children, assess their gifts and interests both realistically and generously, talk with them, listen to them, and help them to make well-informed decisions.” (Robertson & Smith, 1999, p.68)
College courses need not be looked at as merely facilitators of vocational and economic opportunities. Other key criteria in evaluating the worth of college courses are their ability to stimulate and challenge the intellect, their capacity to evolve students into wholesome persons, etc. In other words, the key question to be asked is whether the course will lead students to grow into socially, morally, and intellectually responsible adults. Moreover, we should never prematurely conclude that “conventional academic subjects are superior to others. We should investigate. We should ask teachers to justify what they do in light of the criteria we establish, and we should continually ask penetrating questions about the criteria themselves.” (Noddings, 2006, p.285) Falling back on the Deweyite philosophy, education is much more than a means to an end – it is an end in itself. Hence, the marketability of skills in the job market, the pecuniary benefits of a particular skill, etc should not be the key criteria determining course content. In this scenario, it is likely to be the case that students, when given complete freedom, will dismantle the prevailing set of narrow criteria. They are likely to follow their interests and passions without considerations of the job market, or monetary rewards, which will lead to decentralization of the national economy. Hence the effects of student freedom touch the realms of economy, society, culture and beyond.
The dangers of a rigid top-down approach to curricula are highlighted by events in American legislature. For example, “bills challenging the premise that faculty and colleges should determine curriculum and select teachers have been introduced in fifteen states and the U.S. Congress, but none has advanced to become law”. (Bradley, 2005, p.9) This is good news, because the proposed bills, which spring from the unofficial document circulated by David Horowitz titled Academic Bill of Rights, is based on a neoconservative social agenda. According to the proposal, the government will play an overarching role in curricula and pedagogy and in faculty recruitment and promotion in both public and private institutions of higher education. In a testimony submitted to the California legislature, an opponent of the bill pointed out that when enacted, the law will “damage higher education by inviting nonprofessional criteria for evaluation, by encouraging the false idea that the content of teaching and research can be helpfully classified in popular political categories, and by inviting costly litigation.” (Bradley, 2005, p.9)
Hence, the flaws inherent in the Academic Bill of Rights (a euphemistic term) suggest that freedom should thrive at the level of colleges if not at the level of students. In other words, if giving students the freedom to frame their curriculum is too utopian an idea, then at least autonomy at the college administration level is a basic requirement. Only then will the academia see diversity of thought and dynamism in scholarship. Such an environment is conducive for positive social action, which is essential for the proper functioning of democracy. If complete freedom for students sounds unrealistic, then educationists will at least have to agree to a more flexible approach to curricula. Periodic review of curricula based on student feedback and broad-based survey of society and economy is a feasible option. Indeed, curriculum revision can be a positive experience that benefits all stakeholders. These include students, teachers, support staff, etc.
Bradley, G. (2005, July/August). Bills Challenge Faculty Control over Curriculum. Academe, 91(4), 9+.
LaCursia, N. (2010). Implementing a Four-Phase Curriculum Review Model: With This Model You Can Review and Modify a Curriculum in Any Discipline, at Any Level, from Elementary School to College. JOPERD–The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 81(9), 39+.
Noddings, N. (2006). Rethinking the Benefits of the College-Bound Curriculum. Phi Delta Kappan, 78(4), 285+.
Robertson, A., & Smith, B. (Eds.). (1999). Teaching in the 21st Century: Adapting Writing Pedagogies to the College Curriculum. New York: Falmer Press.