The degree and scope of academic freedom has been a perennial topic of debate. But generally, it is the governing authorities who have their way, with students having to toe the line. In an ideal world, though, students will play a significant role in determining the courses and subjects to be included in their curriculums. While students in primary and secondary stages of education need to have a standard basic curriculum, those reaching college level should be given more autonomy. This relaxation is recommended keeping in mind that college students are entering adulthood and have a right to choose the type of individuals they want to become. (Robertson & Smith, 1999, p.69) As the system functions today, college students are forced to conform to an educational model that was not designed in their interests. In other words, the existing educational system serves to indoctrinate young minds into obedient servants of the established social order. At the top of the social pyramid are the business and political elites, whose interests are reflected in the design of curricula. Hence, though it might lead to radical social upheavals, allowing greater freedom of choice within college campuses is the right way to go.
Let us look at the rationale offered by those against freedom of choice in curricula and identify flaws in their arguments. A prominent advocate for less academic freedom was the sociologist Mortimer Adler, who stated that, left to their own choices, some students “will ‘downgrade’ their own education; therefore, adults should control these crucial choices so that such downgrading does not occur.” (Noddings, 2006, p.285) This fear is overstated, for college authorities can devise ways of ensuring that certain basic standards are met. Moreover, by what criteria are courses judged good and bad? In other words, the notion of ‘downgrading’ is very subjective. As John Dewey noted in his lectures,
“a course in cooking, well planned and well executed, can induce critical thinking, increase cultural literacy, and provide valuable skills – it can be a “good” course. In contrast, a course in algebra may discourage critical thinking, add nothing to cultural literacy, and lead students to despair of acquiring useful skills – it can be a “bad” course.” (Noddings, 2006, p.285)
Considering that John Dewey was the most influential educationist of last century, his views have to be heeded to. The essence of Dewey’s argument is that by there is more merit than what is apparent in courses such as cooking than what the academic establishment will admit. Moreover, if students are allowed to create courses that would satisfy their natural inclinations, they are bound to participate in the learning process more willingly and thoroughly, enhancing the final outcome.
To alleviate the concerns of those who fear lack of norms and standards in giving complete freedom, we need to qualify the sort of freedom offered them. While the coercive authoritarian nature of standardized curriculum is one extreme, a permissive, hands-off freedom given to students will be the opposite extreme. By applying moderation, a system that is realistic and yet demanding could be designed. Teacher counseling and guidance that approximates parental interest in students is worth pursuing. One should also remember that students can never be given equal opportunity by force. Such a tendency is against democratic principles. Instead, what we need to do, is to “live with our children, assess their gifts and interests both realistically and generously, talk with them, listen to them, and help them to make well-informed decisions.” (Robertson & Smith, 1999, p.68)