Thought Police in the Lecture Hall

By Asheesh Kapur Siddique
Saturday, October 28, 2006

Universities are the bulwark of democratic societies -- places where individuals with diverse viewpoints come together to learn and to produce new knowledge for addressing social concerns, free of ideological interference. But these centers of freedom are under attack from people who want to inject partisan politics into our classrooms.

Led by activist David Horowitz, some conservatives are pushing for the adoption of an "Academic Bill of Rights" (ABOR) across America. The bill takes the form of student resolutions or legislative proposals claiming to protect the academic freedom of college students from ideological indoctrination by professors.

My classmates at Princeton passed a modified version of the bill in a student referendum in April. In July, Philadelphia's Temple University became the first institution to officially adopt the policy. Arizona's legislature is preparing to consider a version of the bill.

The College Access and Opportunity Act, passed by the House in March and under consideration in the Senate, aims to deny federal funding to institutions -- even private ones -- that refuse to comply with ABOR's limitations on speech.

In truth, these efforts only hurt the students they purport to help. Horowitz and his backers aren't protecting our rights; they're impeding our educations. The Academic Bill of Rights would substitute political correctness for the free exchange of ideas on campus by preventing faculty and students from discussing fresh or controversial ideas in class. It would restrict what professors can teach and what students can learn.

This exchange between teachers and pupils lies at the heart of liberal education. But ABOR's backers argue that professors presenting new ideas might "indoctrinate" or offend students. Their bill denies us the right to evaluate the merits of ideas and arguments for ourselves by banning "political" or "anti-religious" speech from classrooms.

College students are much smarter and more capable of distinguishing between propaganda and informed opinion than Horowitz and his supporters think. We have a right to learn about any issue our knowledgeable professors deem important to our intellectual growth. This proposal would curtail students' discussion of topics deemed "politically controversial" and liable to "offend" a sensitive classmate.

How can I learn about the modern Middle East in my political science classes if my professor isn't allowed to discuss the "controversial" topic of the Iraq war and its regional effects? Should my biology instructor be prevented from teaching evolution out of fear of offending a creationist classmate? And why should schools allow some left-wing campus agitator in Economics 101 to file a complaint because a lecturer discusses market efficiency rather than Marxist theories of labor?

All these scenarios are possible at institutions cowed into incorporating Horowitz's restrictions into their academic policy. The bill's vague language invites any student with an ideological agenda to use its provisions to politicize syllabi and restrict campus speech.

No disgruntled individual has a right to inhibit everyone else's ability to learn. Youthful skepticism about received wisdom is, of course, essential for intellectual maturation. And a student who puts forth an unpopular argument in class or on an assignment should not be disparaged by an instructor or given a bad grade.

But almost every university has policies prohibiting such harassment along with independent appeals procedures to protect both students and the integrity of the academic environment. Horowitz's restrictions, in contrast, would invite outside monitoring of the classroom, creating hostility between students and professors, and politicizing the intellectual environment at school. It would allow the whims of partisan legislators, rather than the judicious advice of knowledgeable PhDs, to dictate what and how young adults learn.

My classmates and I want our elected leaders to focus on addressing our real concerns when it comes to getting an education -- student loans, skyrocketing tuition and the post-graduation job market. We don't want them making it harder for us to learn by restricting the free exchange of ideas on campus.

The writer is a senior at Princeton University.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company