When Does the Right of Inquiry Begin?
"Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die." -- Chief Justice Earl WarrenOn Christmas Eve in the Huffington Post, Dr. Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project took aim at the prospect of academic freedom in public school science class. One imagines Zimmerman hunched over the world's last typewriter, pecking out his contempt for modernity letter by letter:
So, the new idea in science education from creationists is to let elementary, middle and high school students draw their own scientific conclusions.Yes, either we let students draw their own scientific conclusions or we draw their conclusions for them. The tension highlighted by Zimmerman is between an ethic of liberality on the one hand, and one of obedience on the other.
To that academic freedom says, "Let a thousand flowers bloom," especially amongst the young. Diversity of scientific viewpoint in schools today will produce a generation of nimble problem solvers tomorrow. (Later disciplinary training will supply the practitioner's constraints soon enough.)
The alternative -- grownups using their authority to tell kids what to think on controversial matters, inculcating docile obedience to orthodoxy -- is the stuff of dystopian fiction, and utterly contrary to the aspiration of public education in the modern liberal state, which is the liberation of the mind from all manner of prejudice.
To be a good liberal is to back academic freedom, not just at the university level, at which point it is often too late, but also if not particularly at the critical early stages of citizen formation: the public school.