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The Freedom to Learn Is the Cornerstone of Academic Freedom

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Carroll G. Robinson & Michael O. Adams
March 28, 2022

Over the past year, we have witnessed increasing politicization of education within the American body politics. From attempts to ban books and legislate against the teaching of Critical Race Theory, to the latest attacks on tenure by Lt. Governor Dan Patrick of Texas, we have reached an inflection point regarding how we teach and train public servants with an understanding that America is more diverse today than ever and its citizenry have different lived experiences. Therefore, as educators, we bear the burden and responsibility to educate and train our students to serve their future clientele with an essential understanding of the historical and contemporary challenges and differences rooted in gender, race, sexual orientation, economic status and region.

Let’s be reminded that the Minnowbrook Conference evolved out of a desire to address social disturbances of the late 1960s and 1970s, with the aim of creating a newer idea of relevant Public Administration.

As educators, let us remind our elected officials and others who challenge educators who teach and do research with the aim of a continuous search for the truth, that the Freedom to Learn is protected by the First, Ninth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States. It is a fundamental right of citizenship.

The right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness requires access to knowledge, as does the right to freedom of speech. These natural and constitutional rights are implicitly grounded in a right to learn and to learn correct and comprehensive information.

Access to education and knowledge has been a historic struggle for Blacks and Hispanics, as well as women and poor people in our nation.

For Black Americans, it started with the prohibition against educating our ancestors who were held in bondage and continued after Emancipation with the separate and unequal policies of the United States Supreme Court’s Plessy decision. The impacts of those policies still linger to this day—notwithstanding Brown v. Board of Education. They can still be seen in the racial education achievement gaps and the declining number of Black men coming into higher education over the past few years.

Since the 1950s, the United States Supreme Court has made it clear that the Freedom to Learn is a constitutionally protected right. That same perspective can also be found in the state constitutional provisions requiring quality, and well-funded state education systems both at the public school and higher education levels.

A quality education does not exist without the Freedom to Learn and Academic Freedom for educators to teach truth in all of its historic complexity, including its modern implications and options for present day and future solutions.

Authors: Robinson and Adams are faculty members at Texas Southern University’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs who both teach public administration and political science.

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