You may have heard the news that Louisiana's governor recently signed an "Academic Freedom" bill, the first such bill to pass in a recent string of efforts to allow public school teachers to push non-scientific alternatives to evolution. (I previously wrote about Missouri's failed version.) All of these bills claim to promote academic freedom for public school teachers to teach the Intelligent Design movement's so-called evidence against evolution. But the concept of academic freedom in a high school curriculum makes no sense.

In the New Scientist story linked to above, Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education points out that "if you look at the American Association of University Professors' definition of academic freedom, it refers to the ability to do research and publish." The whole point of academic freedom is, like tenure, to protect independent scholars and scientists from having their work suppressed, manipulated, or managed by administrators or other people outside the research community who might want to pressure scholars to alter their conclusions or not research unfavorable topics.

It's based on the premise that science and scholarship work best when the researchers themselves, as a community, make judgments about the intellectual merit of a scholar's work. It's a way to prevent those with administrative or political power from skewing what is supposed to be disinterested research. At a healthy research institution, you don't have the dean telling a psychology professor she can't study relationship health in same-sex couples, or the local mayor pressuring the university to rein in a professor studying the effects of poverty on disease rates in inner-city children. The point is that nobody decides what a scientist should work on except the scientist himself and that scientist's peers who review the work.

That's not to say academic freedom prevents researchers from being wrong or biased, but those errors and biases are supposed to be counteracted by intellectual competition within a community of researchers.

Academic freedom is vital for healthy scholarship, but there are some obvious cases where it doesn't apply - most notably in situations where the scholar is not supposed to decide for himself what the content of a research project or lecture should be. Some (but by no means all) government science jobs, for example, aren't meant to be independent research positions, and those scientists don't have the same freedom to lecture and publish that academic scientists do. But most obviously, academic freedom doesn't apply to anyone, high school teachers or professors, teaching classes whose content is set to meet certain curriculum standards. A physics professor does not have the freedom to disregard a department-mandated curriculum in a Freshman physics class, and a high school teacher does not have "academic freedom" to set aside a state or school-board mandated science curriculum in favor of that teacher's favorite topics.

What would be the point of that kind of academic freedom anyway? What is it supposed to accomplish? Real academic freedom is meant to keep outside pressure from skewing the work of independent researchers, but in a high school class, the teacher is paid to teach what's expected. Giving teachers freedom to disregard the established curriculum in required courses serves no purpose except to allow nuts like the cross-burning John Freshwater to preach their crazy ideas to a captive audience of public school children.

So when advocacy groups make the argument that we should give school teachers more academic freedom, we need to ask them just what exactly that academic freedom is supposed to protect - because academic freedom is not a virtue in and of itself. In just about every case, you'll find that the real reason for the calls for academic freedom is to permit these teachers to get around the state-mandated curriculum that they are being paid to teach.