Defending academic freedom

FREEDOM of thought and speech on college campuses is a most important expression of American liberty. To help develop analytical skills, young people need to be exposed to a variety of ideas and to be able to engage in rigorous intellectual debate with proponents of various concepts. But academic freedom, like other American liberties, requires defense from time to time. This is one such time.

Accuracy in Academia, a new organization, is trying to recruit college students to monitor professors for inaccuracy or lack of balance in their approach. The group is particularly concerned about bias from the left; one organization leader has charged that there are 10,000 Marxist professors in the United States who believe the US should become a communist nation -- an utterly insupportable assertion. The group is an offshoot of Accuracy in Media, which watches America's media from a conservative persp ective.

The new campus tack is reminiscent of the chilling McCarthy era of the 1950s, with vague accusations of left-wing bias unsupported by specifics, and clandestine checking, by unnamed persons, of the views of university faculty members.

These tactics have no place in the United States. Generalities should be accompanied by specifics, and people under attack should be faced by accusers willing to identify themselves.

Monitoring from outside is the wrong approach to any imbalance that may -- or may not -- exist in a college faculty, or with a single professor's presentation. If the approach of Accuracy in Academia were to gain a substantial foothold, it would threaten the freewheeling presentation of views vital to academic freedom.

Any problems of academic imbalance ought instead to be dealt with by the faculty or administration. Or by the students, who from their first freshman days ought to analyze professors' views rather than accept them unquestioningly; most students take this approach already.

In the broadest perspective, who is to say where the proper ideological balance lies, whether in one lecture, or in a course, or in a department? What layman or student can say with certainty whether a professor's presentation is accurate? Accuracy is a concept with which all would agree; but when such neutral words are used by groups with a clear ideological bent, they risk losing their meaning.

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