Fall 2023 Bulletin: Annual Report

Board of Directors Statement on The Freedom to Learn: Approved September 2023

An open book faces the sky and birds fly from its pages.
Illustration by iStock.com/Mary Ne.

Since our nation’s founding, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has celebrated excellence in every domain of scholarship and cultivated knowledge from many perspectives to advance the public good. The Academy is an independent, nonpartisan institution. Central to our work is a commitment to intellectual freedom–the freedom to teach, to learn, to speak, and to inquire without strictures of ideological or political orthodoxy. Freedom to pursue knowledge, without fear of censorship or discipline, is a bedrock value of our constitutional democracy and a practical condition for crafting the most effective solutions to our society’s toughest challenges.

Education is central to our democracy but has always been contested terrain. In recent years, several jurisdictions have passed laws restricting what educators may teach about race, gender, American history, and other issues. Some of these laws ban certain books, viewpoints, or topics from classrooms and libraries; others eliminate certain degrees or fields of study; and some mandate the teaching of particular canons or curricula while prohibiting the teaching of others. Many of these laws affect not only elementary and secondary schools but also our colleges and universities, where the importance of academic freedom is at its apex. Penalties for violating these laws include loss of institutional funding and, in some cases, individual liability for educators or termination of employment.

The Academy, since 1780, has sought “to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honor, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people.” Given this commitment in our charter, we stand firmly in support of intellectual freedom and oppose education laws that require a head-in-the-sand approach to issues such as race, gender, and American history. Like many institutions, the Academy has worked to confront aspects of its own history that involve uncomfortable truths with consequences that still reverberate today. For educators, these are topics of great sensitivity, requiring thoughtful pedagogy that eschews indoctrination. But as ample lessons from history show, banning certain texts or topics from the classroom in the name of avoiding indoctrination is too often another form of indoctrination. Such restrictions are especially pernicious and antithetical to fundamental values when they carry the imprimatur of state sanction. As the Supreme Court said in the Barnette case in 1943, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion . . . .”

To be sure, classroom teaching should be age-appropriate and sensitive to community concerns, and elected officials have wide latitude to shape the curriculum and set educational priorities within constitutional boundaries. But laws that remove books from libraries or categorically ban teaching of certain concepts go a step further. Instead of cultivating habits of inquiry and open-mindedness, such laws deny students the freedom to learn and think for themselves. Instead of preparing citizens for democratic self-government, such laws undermine reasoned discourse and respectful consideration of diverse viewpoints. And instead of promoting knowledge of our nation’s history and values, such laws disserve the education of “a free, independent, and virtuous people.”

The Academy’s commitment to intellectual freedom prompts us to comment on another issue: the state of free speech at our colleges and universities. Throughout history, our campuses have often been sites of vigorous protest and social activism. But we are troubled by recent incidents in which protests or disruptions have prevented speakers from being heard. The disruptions have targeted speakers whose ideas some regard as offensive or beyond the pale, depriving those who wish to hear these ideas of the opportunity to do so.

To be clear, we do not imply any moral equivalence between laws restricting what educators may teach and speech-disrupting tactics that in many cases are already prohibited by campus policy. Conduct by individuals in violation of institutional policy does not have the force or authority of government policies that penalize free inquiry in educational settings. Nevertheless, silencing speech through disruptive tactics runs counter to academic freedom and the processes of inquiry and debate that are the lifeblood of higher education.

This is not the first time our nation has confronted these issues, but they have special urgency given the prevalence of recent laws restricting what educators may teach and what students may learn, as well as our society’s increasing polarization and intolerance of opposing views, whether on the right or the left. In addition, these issues are of a piece with concerns about political censorship by academic journals and funding agencies, and politicization of research and faculty hiring.

Building on related work by our Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship, the American Academy will be undertaking a variety of initiatives in the months and years ahead to support educators in their commitment to intellectual freedom and constructive, inclusive discourse. One example is the forthcoming issue of Dædalus on the Future of Free Speech, which will be released in the summer of 2024. A diverse democracy cannot succeed without open debate and consideration of controversial ideas, and the Academy will be working to promote and model such freedom of inquiry.