Publication Date

May 7, 2012

The AHA Council has passed the following statement on recently proposed legislationin Michigan:

Academic freedom is indispensable to the educational enterprise. The AHA deplores efforts of legislators and other public officials to override the professional judgment of college and university faculty in curricular matters broadly defined. Faculty must remain in control of decisions such as establishing curriculum, creating syllabi, choosing reading material and making other kinds of assignments, and providing research opportunities for their students. Partisan political meddling is bad both for the educational development of students and for the pursuit of knowledge.

Increasingly, faculty are finding that students’ education can often be enhanced by internships in organizations that are not a part of the college or university. An internship can enable a student to obtain knowledge, develop skills, and acquire experience in a way that would be difficult, or even impossible, to duplicate in campus settings. At the same time, students should receive history credit for internships only if they are doing work that historians would unquestionably recognize as historical. For a history student, this kind of work outside the classroom might involve learning to create, manage, or do research in a particular type of archive; compiling oral histories or other kinds of documentation; summarizing complex patterns of historical fact for people who have neither the time nor skills to do such research themselves; or countless other activities that simultaneously bring historical skills to institutional needs and enable students to understand the value of their history education beyond the academy.

In a free and diverse society, some students will inevitably choose to intern at organizations pursuing projects of which some people disapprove; indeed, some may wind up at organizations of which the supervising faculty does not fully approve. Placements across the political spectrum are not necessarily inappropriate. In all cases, when assessing the educational value of placements, the professional judgment of properly qualified and appointed faculty must be decisive.

The proposed Michigan legislation improperly injects political criteria into education, and attempts to write into law broad principles that would have negative consequences, both for education and the communities in which our institutions of higher education exist. Had legislation like this existed fifty years ago, a Michigan public university probably could not have placed a student as an archivist with a civil rights organization that supported lunch counter sit-ins; today it probably could not approve an internship that requires a student to search foreign newspapers to help build a non-profit’s database on forced labor by prisoners, worker safety, or waste disposal at third-world factories if a Michigan company had an interest in one of those factories. Nor, for that matter, could it place a student doing even non-controversial kinds of research at an organization studying any number of global problems—religious or political persecution, child trafficking, or genocide—if that organization called for a Michigan business to stop dealing with the offending foreign government or movement.

The proposed law would, in short, make illegal the gathering of information, or even learning how to gather information, in cooperation with a group that seeks to inform public debate. Such restrictions would both improperly hinder student learning, and impoverish the reasoned debate which is essential to democracy. Moreover, since the proposed legislation does not distinguish between the main activity of the organization and incidental activities, its reach and its harm are probably even broader than is immediately apparent. Even a single gesture in the history of an otherwise completely neutral organization could theoretically make it impossible for a university to ever place an intern there.

The question to ask about an educational internship is not whether one fully endorses everything that every organization receiving an intern does; it is whether a particular internship has been designed in order to confer a significant educational benefit on the student. And that is a question for educators, not politicians, to decide.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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