Issue 63, Fall 1996
by Fred T. Haley
In a Walker-Ames lecture at the University of Washington in 1956, Gerald W. Johnson, a Baltimore journalist and author, said this in a discussion of academic freedom:
“There is one loyalty oath that every man in the teaching profession is compelled to take and the penalty for its violation is not the legal penalty of treason, but the damnation of his immortal soul. He may not take this oath before a notary public, but if he doesn’t swear it on the altar of God, he is no teacher but a quack. Its terms are simple. They are: ‘In speaking to this class I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.”
I would take this stirring expression of faith in the inviolability of the teacher as my own in contending that no limitations but his own conscience be placed on the teacher in his selection of a range of reading material or the ideas he permits to circulate, for the minute you begin to set limits to intellectual adventure you begin to lay a cold hand on the spirit of education.
No policy statements, however lucid, or bureaucratic regulations, however explicit, will improve upon limitations that an honest, aspiring and dedicated teacher imposes on himself; and if the teacher lacks the understanding and the common sense to set his own standards in the matter, I doubt he should be in the classroom in the first place.
Some years ago, during a surge of right-wing frenzy when the administrative head of my own system suggested that some sort of policy be set by our board in the handling of controversial subjects and controversial ideas in the classroom, I demurred with the observation that in my estimation it was far too late a date and at the wrong place to be forced under pressure to redefine academic freedom in the Tacoma public schools. . .
Having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of advertising money to influence tastes, I don’t for a moment concede that the young are so easily contaminated, so instantly corrupted, so culturally defenseless, that I will agree to the fettering of a single mind or the obstructing, by censorship, of a student’s path to understanding, however unpleasant it appears to me to be. . . .
And there can be no problem in rearing a society that will abhor ugliness if it has learned to love beauty.
My favorite definition, therefore, of education is that it is a contemplation of greatness.
Like Milton, I, too, have no faith in cloistered virtue and not any in the censor, institutional or government. . . .
There has not been a book published that I would seek to forbid entrance to the school library that the librarian thought useful or to the classroom that the teacher thought useful.
So long as I am a school director I will raise my voice against bowdlerism, and censorship of any kind.
I don’t want any committee set up to eliminate the trash and un-savory material. I don’t want the high school principal instructing his English teachers how to select course material (though I expect him to keep informed). Our problems with high school students, I think, are not to protect them from reading “bad” books but to inspire them to love literature; and that problem was never one of morals but of aesthetics. . . . .
As a policy matter I would not permit the superintendent of schools or any of his subordinates to lay down any injunctions in this area to his teaching staff, because if at this stage of American history there is only one teacher in a hundred who is fully a teacher — that is to say, understands that the integrity of his profession is a precious and untouchable thing, I must still not bring the standards of education down to the levels of the enfeebled but bring, with all the means at my disposal, the weak teachers up to the needs of man’s greatest calling.
Fred T. Haley is chairman of Brown & Haley in Tacoma. A longer version of this op-ed was in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 7, 1993.