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Academic Freedom is Vital to Developing the Critical Abilities Society Needs

New voices are joining the national debate over academic freedom on college campuses, and that’s good for democracy.

What do academic freedom and democracy have in common? Plenty, and that’s why it’s more important than ever that we understand what’s at stake when people start throwing around loaded terms like “divisive concepts.”

Seven states, home to 42 million Americans, have enacted laws to limit college courses dealing with racism, gender, or other sensitive (to some) topics. Those of us concerned with high-quality education beyond high school have seen this coming, and it’s not good for our country.

For more than a century, PEN America has sought to defend free speech here and abroad. It’s disturbing that this organization, which has fought challenges to free speech in so many other places around the world, now sees the threat here at home.

PEN America and the American Council on Education (ACE) have written a guide to help higher ed leaders defend academic freedom. PEN America points to a rise of “educational gag orders,” legislative restrictions on what can be taught about race, gender, American history, and other topics.

“PEN America has tracked nearly 300 bills, introduced in 44 state legislatures, which have sought to restrict the teaching of such topics,” the group says. Nearly 100 bills have specifically targeted colleges and universities.

Legislative efforts to restrict education began with concerns about K-12. But even a year ago PEN and others noticed the increased targeting of colleges.


The impulse to curtail discussion of sensitive topics is often framed positively, as an effort to avoid conflict or shield vulnerable populations. But there’s an insidiously negative aspect to this as well: the idea that those in power know best and should be allowed to limit information flow. It’s an authoritarian viewpoint—one that has been on the rise globally with disturbing results.

In response to a rise of authoritarian leaders around the world, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce looked at the role of higher education in advancing democratic ideals.

“Higher education promotes independent thought, respect for diversity, and inquisitive assessment of evidence—all of which can counteract the unquestioning deference to authority,” the study said.

The link between higher education and increased levels of democracy in countries has been established in multiple studies. The Georgetown study found a larger benefit in the United States than elsewhere.

Read entire article at Forbes