“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

James Madison, Federalist No. 51

 

One issue I have not seen specifically discussed in the debate over Minnesota’s teacher tenure bill is the crucial importance of academic freedom. If the bill should pass in its present form, a teacher could be determined to be ineffective in one evaluation. Consequently, an administrator, board member or influential community member might object to a legitimate issue discussed in a social studies class and exert influence on the principal to observe the social studies teacher in question and give the teacher a rating of “ineffective.”

One teacher could be rated 2.8 and another 2.9, for the sole purpose of being able to lay off the more senior teacher who was unjustly given the lower score. I would think this should be of concern to Minnesotans of all political perspectives.

The intent of academic tenure is to provide academic freedom. If H.F. 2/S.F. 97 is signed into law, this freedom would be destroyed.

Academic tenure is a protection — or, in Madison’s language, an internal control — that allows for the free discussion of ideas. I teach government, history and economics, and we regularly discuss issues in my classes with multiple viewpoints covering the entire political spectrum. It is not only possible but probable that an unintended consequence of this bill would be the elimination of these necessary discussions.

A competent teacher takes no sides on issues, but teaches students to consider all arguments. A teacher can be disciplined for taking a personal side, but not for allowing all sides. A competent administrator evaluates teachers, not to limit this effort, but to promote it.

If administrators and board members were “angels,” there would be no need for tenure.

Regardless of one’s ideology, I cannot imagine who would favor the abandonment of academic freedom. I do not teach my students what to think. Rather, I teach them how to think by strengthening their ability to analyze rationally and think critically. The proven way to do this is to present all sides of an issue and let the students practice their debating and thinking skills.

If I must be concerned about angering an administrator, school board member or influential community member when presenting arguments in class, then we are all doing a disservice to students.

The school district in which I have taught for the past 26 years is a wonderful place to teach. The administrators, board and parents have been great. However, that is not the case everywhere, and one would be naive to think so. Those who work in the private sector should think about the number of times a quality colleague who had a disagreement with the boss has been let go, or a colleague with significant experience and a higher salary was let go because of cost-cutting measures or because the bosses did not agree with the colleague’s views on a work issue.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled oral arguments on whether states may ban same-sex marriage. If my classes are discussing same-sex marriage, as it is in the news — or the court system and judicial decisionmaking — and a student takes a position I challenge in order to make the student think about the argument used, I may risk angering an administrator, board member or influential community member no matter what position I take. But to strengthen students’ thinking and reasoning skills, I must do this. I must also do this to be sure the students are properly informed in regard to all sides of this issue.

Whether the issue is same-sex marriage, affirmative action or immigration, there are always controversial issues about which students need to be informed and taught how to analyze.

No matter what their political persuasion, students and teachers, and thus education, would be harmed by the damage inflicted on academic freedom by this bill. Academic tenure is a control on administrators and school boards, necessary to ensure that Minnesota’s students are taught how to think by having their thinking challenged in a classroom unburdened by outside influences and consequences created by bills such as this.

 

Mark Alcorn teaches at Holdingford High School in Holdingford, Minn.