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Probing academic freedom

July 19, 2005

If ever there were a measure that is open to political grandstanding, it's the one passed July 5 by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

The lawmakers decided, in addition to all of their other duties, that they would investigate academic freedom in all state-funded institutions of higher education.

The inquiry will include a look at whether a student's personal beliefs about politics, etc., affect his or her grades.

Whether that means that every student who has a gripe about a test score will be encouraged to claim ideological discrimination is unclear. Lawmakers should remember their own college experiences before they travel too far down that road.

As Patricia Heilman, head of the state system's faculty union, told The Associated Press, hearing only the ideas that you are comfortable with is not what college is all about.

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"Education is exposing you to a lot of different ideas, because you'll be more tolerant, and you should become stronger in your own opinion if you've heard all the arguments against it," she said.

In other words, if your view of the world has never been challenged, how secure will you be in defending it when a real challenge comes along? That's what college is about - a place to debate and argue over politics and philosophy.

That said, a liberal professor who gives poor marks to students who express a conservative philosophy should face some academic sanction.

But that sanction should not come from the state legislature, but from the institution itself, which ought to be worried about a professor who needs more than the power of argument to defend his of her beliefs.

Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong, R-Lancaster, who co-sponsored the resolution, said he wasn't sure there was a problem and noted that not every problem in society requires the involvement of the legislature. Those are wise words which ought to guide this investigation.

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