Academic freedom has often been an issue in recent years, but almost exclusively as it concerned the professor and his job or perhaps the library and its books.
In the generally excellent fight to defend these principles against the attackers, a serious issue was largely overlooked. Immediate problems were solved, and men's jobs protected, but little precaution was taken that the same sort of rampant fear and distrust would not once again sweep the country, and that the fights might not have to be fought again.
The fault lay in ignoring the importance of academic freedom for the student. For while a surprising number of students came to the sides of their impugned professors, a disappointing number did not. This could be expected, because by and large the American college campus was one where a youth might read about freedoms and liberties, but could not practice them too much. Speakers were indiscriminately banned, and college papers sometimes suppressed; despite loud outcries from the students involved, the speakers usually stayed banned and the newspapers stayed suppressed, at least until a purification had been effected.
Just recently a document has come forth insisting that academic freedom applies to the student, and that he must learn democracy through practice. It is a twelve-page pamphlet--Academic Freedom and Civil Liberties of Students--published by the American Civil Liberties Union. While it does not document cases, it affords a clear and generally consistent statement of principles for student rights at colleges, and as an after-thought, secondary schools.
The ACLU statement is strongest on general principles, for some of its specific statements and concepts read as though they were dreamed up in the group's New York office by men who thought it was a good idea to say something about academic freedom and the student, regardless of whether or not their experience particularly qualified them for such authorship.
The pamphlet's main argument is that young people cannot learn and grow into adults who respect democracy if they are barred from exercising it themselves. It attacks "the increasing exercise of a stifling paternalism by college authorities and governing boards over students, their organizational and other activities."
Such control, it is argued, attempts the impossibility of trying to protect the student from the "hazards of freedom" and still train him in "making intelligent choices between policies."
The meat of the ACLU's work concerns various aspects of campus life, or, as they put it, "Students as Campus Citizens."
Five main categories are considered in the report, and a careful explication of the position taken on each might be in order.
1) Student Government. The report recommends such, noting that while they are "sometimes defective," they provide "a first training in political expression."
The only points the report makes concerning student governments are that they should be elected by the entire student body, not just by clubs or organizations, and that their membership should not be subject to administrative control except through academic eligibility requirements.
The fault here is that the essential question is not met--what shall a Student Government control? This is an issue central to the existence of student government, for practice in democracy assumes a high degree of artificiality if the subject matter is trivial.
To find an answer it is necessary to go to the section on student discipline, where it is urged that student governments should consider any problems that concern students, including those of curriculum. While the Junior Prom-cheering at games type of Council subject may be more common, the report obviously favors reaching into subjects like educational policy, for at still another place it urges "Students should be offered opportunity to participate in the total work of the educational institution."