Is the Creationist Purge Coming?

You’ve heard the hype: Mainstream colleges are fanatically biased against dissenting academics, especially conservative religious ones. The reality seems to be a little more complicated. News from a few mainstream schools seems to show that many institutions really do protect the academic freedom of conservative dissenters, but there seem to be fuzzy and inexact lines professors aren’t allowed to cross. Is creationism one of them?

If you asked George Yancey or Mary Poplin, you’d hear that mainstream higher education is blinded by “Christianophobia” or “secular privilege.” You’d think that conservative academics, especially religious ones, are common targets of institutional purges.

EPSON DSC picture

First they came for the communists…

Recent reporting from Inside Higher Ed, however, shows a more complicated picture. Virginia Tech is under pressure to fire a teaching assistant who has been accused of harboring white-supremacist feelings. Northwestern, meanwhile (my Evanston alma mater, that is, not the Minnesota fundamentalist redoubt), refuses to fire a professor for denying the Holocaust. In both cases, from what I can tell, the politically abhorrent ideas seem to have nothing to do with the accused academic’s teaching. In other words, neither of the teachers taught anyone white supremacy or Holocaust denial.

If they did, I bet the situation would be different. Consider, for example, the case of Crystal Dixon at the University of Toledo. Dixon argued publicly that discrimination against homosexuals might be acceptable. Toledo said such notions weren’t in line with Dixon’s job as a human-resources administrator. She was out.

As far as your humble editor can discern, the awkward and unclear rule of thumb seems to be that the right of professors, administrators, and students to harbor extremely unpopular ideas will be defended. Unless those ideas interfere with the written job description of the person involved. Or unless the person doesn’t have tenure protection. Or unless the idea is really really unpopular.

Where does that leave academic creationists?

I can see how the average non-creationist might think it would be a no-brainer. It might seem that protecting professors who disagree with central tenets of their own discipline would be absurd. How could a young-earth creationist teach a mainstream geology class? How could someone who disbelieves in “macroevolution” teach a mainstream biology class?

Yet in case after case, dissenting creationist scientists keep their jobs. Consider Eric Hedin at Ball State. He was granted tenure even after being accused of pushing creationism in the classroom. And what about Michael Behe at Lehigh? The prominent intelligent-design proponent has kept his job, even though his colleagues posted a disclaimer against Behe’s work on their website.

For what it’s worth, I think those strategies are correct. Purging professors for their opinions sets a terrible precedent. But I won’t be surprised if the alleged white-supremacist at Virginia Tech loses his job. For one thing, he doesn’t have tenure. For another, white supremacy is such a despised idea that I’d be hard pressed to imagine any administrators fighting too hard to defend it.

So here’s the ILYBYGTH prediction: The Virginia Tech TA will lose his job, in spite of the fact that he should seemingly enjoy the protection of academic freedom. And creationists will continue to wonder if their institutions are scheming to replace them. I don’t blame them. Ask Scott Nearing—all too often, academic freedom is only granted to those with whom we already agree.

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Shut Up. No YOU Shut Up.

Is it really that simple? Do our current campus “free-speech” debates boil down to a simple shouting match? As we’ve seen, conservatives and progressives have both fought to defend speech they agree with. And both sides have a history of threats and intimidation against speech they don’t. In spite of these similarities, I can’t help but think the two sides are very different. Correct me if I’m wrong.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, conservative activists have lately pushed a spate of campus free-speech laws. They hope to force colleges to allow controversial conservative speakers and ideas.

middlebury protesters

Shutting down Charles Murray at Middlebury

Some conservatives think that progressive activists have clamped down on free speech. They cite cases such as the recent hounding of Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State or the smack-down of Charles Murray on Middlebury’s campus.

We can’t forget, though, that conservative activists have also clamped down on progressive campus speech. Most recently, we see threats and attacks on John Eric Williams at Trinity (Connecticut) and Dana Cloud at Syracuse. Professor Williams had shared a provocative article about the recent shooting at a Congressional baseball practice. Cloud had called for more counter-protests against anti-Sharia protesters.

Sarah Bond twitter

…a different sort of thing.

They aren’t alone. Sarah Bond of the University of Iowa was harassed after she pointed out that most classical statues weren’t originally white. Tommy Curry of Texas A&M was attacked for talking about the history of anti-white violence.

We could go on:

In each case, conservatives attacked progressives for using racist, threatening, or violent speech. In each case, activists conducted campaigns to publicize, demonize, and criminalize professors’ speech.

So, in some ways, we’ve come to the old school-yard standoff. Both sides insist on free speech for their own views and both sides use violence and intimidation to shut off speech by their opponents.

We can take it even further. Both sides seem untroubled by the actual content of their opponents’ speech. At Middlebury, for example, progressive protesters seemed unaware of Charles Murray’s actual topic. And in Iowa, conservative protesters did not bother to read Professor Bond’s argument about historical whiteness.

Does that mean that the two sides are roughly equal? I don’t think so.

I might be confused by my own sympathies, but to my mind the two sides are very different. On one hand, we have student protesters on campuses shouting down speakers they find dangerous. At Middlebury, it descended into thuggery and violence. On the other hand, we have conservative legislators and online commentators hoping to earn points by publicizing the things progressive professors say.

Time after time, we see the same political blocs lining up: Progressive protesters pull from student ranks and shout down conservative speakers. They make their campuses unwelcome zones for conservative pundits. Conservative protesters line up lawmakers and online networks to fire professors, charge them with crimes, and threaten their physical safety, wherever they might be.

Those aren’t the same.

The political power—yes, including the potential of vigilante violence—of conservatives seems far higher. In short, I would rather be Professor Weinstein facing an angry crowd of unreasonable students than Professor Williams walking alone at night. Anonymous threats online against progressive professors scare me. Student protesters at an announced speech don’t.

I understand I’m biased. I sympathize with my fellow progressive professors and our activist students. Not that I think we are always right or free of dangerous tendencies, but the worst-case scenario of left-wing student violence seems far less dangerous than its opposite number.

From the other side, I’m swayed and intimidated by the enormous political power of conservative educational activists, both legally and outside the law. As I wrote in my recent book about twentieth-century educational conservatism, the vigilante violence in school controversies has always been dominated by conservative activists. From the Ku Klux Klan to the American Legion to Kanawha County’s extremists, the use of political violence has been most often the tool of the right.

From that perspective, it seems to me to be unfair to lump all anti-free-speech protests together. Yes, both sides are prone to frightening excesses. And yes, both sides seem willing to defend free speech only when they agree with it. But that doesn’t make them the same.

Free Speech Firestorm Jumps the Creationist Gap

Everyone supports free speech. But these days, academic “free speech” has become the latest creationist tactic to wedge creation-friendly science into schools. Mostly, that has been a K-12 effort, but it seems like creationist tactics have piggybacked their way into higher education.

The latest incarnation comes from the University of Wisconsin. Conservative lawmakers have promoted a bill to protect free speech on campus. To be fair, the conservatives who push Wisconsin’s bill insist that it has nothing to do with classroom topics, creationist or otherwise. The target, they insist, are leftist radicals who won’t allow conservative speakers on campus.

Wisconsin free speech

Let creationism ring?!!?!???

In Wisconsin’s case, the headline-grabbing incident was a talk by conservative pundit Ben Shapiro. In November 2016, Shapiro was shouted down for about twenty minutes before campus police kicked out the shouting protesters. Conservative lawmakers hope their bill will guarantee a balanced ideological environment; an infusion of conservative ideas on campus. The bill is patterned after other campus free-speech bills, inspired by the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

To this reporter, though, it seems like the current higher-ed furor over free speech has leaped the curricular gap. Here’s what I worry about: Campus free-speech efforts will be used to protect the “free speech” of creationists and other conservative folks locked out of mainstream science. Attempts to box out creationist ideas will be stymied.

Full disclosure: I can’t even pretend to be neutral on this one. I love my alma mater and I quake at the notion that lawmakers would pass any sort of law demanding or prohibiting certain forms of teaching. It’s not just an intellectual or political thing, either. If big granting organizations such as the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health think UW is shackled by creationist science, they will be less likely to fund UW-based projects. Alumni will shy away from sending in donations. Students will be less likely to bring their tuition dollars. In short, the possible negative ramifications of a move like this could be huge.

But at this point, my dear SAGLRROILYBYGTH, you may be asking yourself a smart question: What does this conservative political move to welcome conservative speakers have to do with creationism?

First, the background: For years now, creationists have pushed for “academic freedom” bills in K-12 schools. The idea is to protect teachers and students from harassment or discrimination if they choose to voice their creationist ideas. Seattle’s Intelligent-Design mavens at Discovery Institute, for example, have offered the following language in their “academic-freedom” petition:

Teachers should be protected from being fired, harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for objectively presenting the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory. Students should be protected from being harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against for expressing their views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory in an appropriate manner.

The idea is to mandate the intellectual rights of creationists in K-12 schools, to protect teachers and students from any sort of negative reaction to their zombie science. If successful, these bills put science education in a legal gray area. A school can’t insist on teaching mainstream science. Teachers can’t insist that students learn it.

We’ve seen glimmers of this sort of creationist “academic freedom” dispute in higher ed, too. Remember Eric Hedin at Ball State? He earned tenure after facing charges of preaching intelligent design. Or Mark Armitage at Cal State Northridge? He successfully sued after facing discrimination for his creationist publications.

The Wisconsin bill, however, introduces a new element to these creationist “academic freedom” battles in higher education. According to Madison’s Capital Times, the bill’s sponsor is a convinced young-earth creationist. His bill would create a Council on Free Expression. Creationist students who feel persecuted could file complaints with this Council.

In the give-and-take in the Wisconsin legislature, skeptical Representative Terese Berceau questioned Jesse Kremer, the bill’s sponsor, on this question. What if, Berceau asked, a student in a geology class argued that the earth was only 6,000 years old?

“Is it okay for the professor to tell them they’re wrong?” Berceau asked during the lengthy session on May 11.

“The earth is 6,000 years old,” Kremer offered.  “That’s a fact.”

Representative Kremer insisted the new law would not affect classroom discussions. But he affirmed that a creationist student—any student—who felt discriminated against could take his or her complaint to the Council on Free Expression.

Again, I know I’m not thinking clearly and calmly on this one. I’m nervous about the possible ramifications of Kremer’s bill and I’m likely to make creationist mountains out of conservative molehills.

Am I being overly paranoid? Or will conservative free-speech bills end up giving creationist students in college the ability to jam up the works of mainstream science classes? Will efforts to set up an intellectual preserve for conservative ideas on campus end up giving creationists more control over college classes? And, most important, will that new creationist influence stymie the mainstream science that usually goes on in Madison?

Do Teachers Have the Right to Be Wrong?

How do we draw the line? How do we know when to punish a teacher for being wrong and when to insist that teachers have a right to express their views on controversial topics? A new bill in Montana again insists that creationist teachers should have legal protection to teach their views. Nor is this simply a Montana question. From its headquarters in Seattle, the Discovery Institute has proposed a model bill for legislatures nationwide. From Alabama to Colorado, Florida to South Dakota, lawmakers have offered similar bills.

The basic argument is the same: Teachers must be allowed to teach the full range of ideas about evolution and the origins of life. Should they? And if they shouldn’t, why not?

These are not easy questions, though they might seem so at first. Opponents of these sorts of creationist “academic freedom” laws scoff that no teacher has the right to tell students things that aren’t true. Supporters, on the other hand, might insist that this is a simple question of teachers’ rights to academic freedom.

Neither of those positions captures the complexity of the situation, though. For those of us who oppose these bills, it seems obvious that teachers must not be allowed to tell students things that are not true. As Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education put it, Montana teachers do not have the right to teach “bunk.”

The hard question, though, is who decides on the definition of bunk, and how. Historically, we’ve seen teachers persecuted for unpopular political beliefs. As historian Clarence Taylor has described, in the early 1950s eight New York teachers were fired for their leftist sympathies.

Throughout the twentieth century, as I argued in my new book, progressive teachers and school administrators struggled to protect their rights to their political opinions. These educators insisted on their right to hold controversial opinions. More pertinent, they insisted on their right to teach students about these ideas.

In hindsight, it’s clear that the rights of these teachers were egregiously violated. What’s worse, the climate of public education as a whole was degraded by these educational witch-hunts. Only a few teachers were actually purged, but a climate of fear pushed teachers and students to hew more closely to the patriotic party line. That’s not good education.

So creationists ask: Aren’t these bills protecting the same right? Don’t creationist teachers have the right to present all sides of scientific questions about origins?

Yes and no. As philosopher Harvey Siegel and I argue in our upcoming book, creationist teachers and students DO have enormous rights in public-school classrooms. Too often, evolution mavens get too wrapped up in winning culture-war battles to admit it. Far too often, science teachers imply that students need to believe evolution; earnest teachers want students to acknowledge the fact that real knowing means abjuring supernatural explanations of events. Creationist students have every right to dissent from such beliefs. If students want to believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, or that the earth is a floating turtle, or any other sort of thing, they have every right to do so.

Public schools must welcome a plurality of religious beliefs. Creationists—teachers and students alike—must be defended in their quest to protect their faith from assault, even if that assault is only implied or suggested.

By that same token, however, these sorts of academic bills fail on two counts. First, students in public schools have the right to be protected from religious indoctrination. No teacher may preach religious doctrine. Though creationists might howl in protest, even the most intelligently designed creationist bills have religious goals. Instead of protecting teachers’ rights to teach controversial subjects, in effect these sorts of academic freedom bills protect a non-existent right to preach a certain religion-friendly doctrine in public-school classrooms.

Second, students in public schools have the right to learn the best ideas available. When issues are truly controversial, students must be exposed to those controversies. But when ideas are not controversial, students must not be forced to mull false ideas as co-equal to truer ones.

This is not only an evolution/creation idea. In history classes, for example, students should not learn that the South won the Civil War. Or that most enslaved people preferred bondage to freedom. These ideas are held by lots of people, but that doesn’t make them just as true as other historical ideas.

Teach the controversy?

Teach the controversy?

In science classes, the sorts of dissent that people such as Montana legislator Clayton Fiscus wants to protect are not equally scientifically valid. True academic freedom does not include the right to offer worse scientific ideas as equal to better ones. True academic freedom does not include the right to preach religious ideas as facts.

So do teachers have the right to be wrong? Yes, indeed. But they do not have a right to encourage students to believe any particular sort of religious belief. Nor do they have the right to pretend two sets of ideas are equally valid when they are not.

Eric Hedin and the Care and Feeding of Young Scientists

Scientists aren’t necessarily stupid.  Yet, as we’ve seen, some academic scientists demonstrate a curious ignorance or even proud self-delusion about important aspects of science and culture.

Perhaps the continuing kerfuffle over Professor Eric Hedin and Ball State University can shed some light on this puzzle.

The case began, it appears, with complaints by University of Chicago scientist and science activist Jerry Coyne.  Coyne complained that the teaching of Eric Hedin at Ball State University represented the indoctrination of students by a religious zealot. Professor Hedin taught a course cross-listed as “The Boundaries of Science” or “Inquiries in the Physical Sciences.”  True enough, Hedin’s reading list leaned heavily on old-earth creationism and intelligent design.  Worst of all, Professor Coyne argued, Hedin’s course proselytized for a specific sort of Christianity and called it science.  The university and department reluctantly agreed to investigate Hedin’s teaching.

Professor Coyne hoped the university would pressure Professor Hedin to stop his preaching.

Other leading science bloggers disagreed.  PZ Myers argued that Hedin’s teaching, though lamentable, must be allowed as an issue of academic freedom.  “If we’re going to start firing professors who teach things that are wrong,” Myers insisted, “we’re all going to be vulnerable.”

The debate between these science activists on the boundaries of acceptable university teaching might help us understand why so many scientists are so strangely unaware of the cultural context of their work.  Neither Professor Coyne nor Professor Myers seems to think that Professor’s Hedin course might actually be of value to the scientists-in-training at Ball State.  Myers defends the classes as a protection of Hedin’s rights, not the protection of student interests.

Is it not possible that such intellectual diversity could be a positive good?

In issues of race, the US Supreme Court has ruled that diversity is a legitimate goal of university admissions.  Racial diversity, in other words, is not only good for members of racial minority groups.  Diversity is good for everybody who wants to learn.

Does not the same principle apply here?

Of course, we would want to avoid the absurd extension of this principle.  We would not want to teach people things that were obviously not true only to give students some sort of intellectual workout.  But the ideas taught by Hedin are not the ravings of some isolated madman.  Rather, they represent an influential and important tradition in our culture.  Though these ideas do not qualify as representatives of mainstream science, they are nevertheless ideas about science.  Scientists should know about them.

Raising young scientists in an ideological or cultural hothouse produces fragile flowers.  It helps explain why so many smart people emerge from this training so remarkably dumb about important ideas.

If we looked into this question as one of encouraging intellectual diversity, we could shift the debate in useful ways.  Everyone can agree that students can benefit by being exposed to a diversity of ideas.  The question becomes, then, at what level and in what format should students learn about heterodox ideas?  What courses should count as requirements, and what courses should be elective?  Most important, where are the boundaries of acceptable diversity?  These are questions with which university faculties have long experience.

In my field, for instance, it would not make sense for introductory courses in American history to teach only a Marxist interpretation of the past.  Students from all sorts of fields take those introductory courses.  For many students, such a course may be their only collegiate exposure to American history.  It would not make sense for those students to learn that history is the unfolding of the class struggle.  But for history majors, students will benefit from having one or more advanced courses taught about specific interpretive traditions, whether or not the instructor is a Marxist.   Even though I do not think a Marxist interpretation is the best approach, I support the inclusion of such courses in university programs.  Not only to defend the teaching rights of professors, but more importantly, to ensure students experience a true diversity of intellectual approaches.

In the case from Ball State, it does not seem as if Professor Hedin’s religion-heavy course should be the ONLY exposure students have to science.  Nor should this course be taught as an introduction to science as a whole. But students who take a full course load of science classes could certainly benefit from considering such ideas.  Even if taught by an instructor who embraces the theological implications.  Other courses might study other aspects of science, and might usefully be taught by professors with strong intellectual commitments to a particular worldview.

Making the debate a question of when and how students encounter intellectual diversity is not as exciting as debating if religious ideas can be taught as science.  It is not as exciting as arguing whether professors have the academic freedom to teach heterodox ideas.  But it seems to me the most productive way to discuss Professor Hedin’s case.

 

 

In the News: Tennessee Two-Step

Tennessee’s lawmakers recently passed a law that—according to supporters—will allow teachers to work with more academic freedom.  It will encourage students, supporters insist, to explore ideas beyond the surface.  Opponents argue that the new law is only a sneak-attack by creationists and intelligent designers.  The law speaks in the language of academic freedom, opponents say, only to mask its true creationist intent.

The law itself claims to want to “help students develop critical thinking skills.”  Since the teaching of “some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy,” the law asserts that Tennessee teachers need clarification and assistance in teaching such issues.  The law mandates that school districts allow and encourage teachers to teach such controversial issues.  The law states that “teachers shall be permitted to help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories.”  Finally, the new law notes that this law “shall not be construed to promote any religious or non-religious doctrine.”

In presenting the issue as one of academic freedom, Tennessee lawmakers apparently hope to overcome constitutional objections that have overwhelmed other anti-evolution laws.  The inspiration seems to have come from the Discovery Institute, a think tank dedicated to promoting the teaching of intelligent design.  In 2007, the Discovery Institute offered a similar-sounding model Academic Freedom bill.

Tennessee is not the first state to enact such a law.  In 2008 Louisiana lawmakers passed a similar “academic freedom” law.  Even earlier, in 2001, then-Senator Rick Santorum inserted a non-binding note into the No Child Left Behind Act that recommended teaching a full range of ideas whenever “controversial issues” were taught.

The Tennessee law has attracted more than its share of journalistic attention because of the easy connection to the 1925 Scopes trial.  The editors of the New York Times, for example, began their objection to the Tennessee law by intoning, “Eighty-seven years after Tennessee was nationally embarrassed for criminally prosecuting the teaching of evolution, the state government is at it again.”

Nearly all the news coverage of the new law insists on connecting it to the famous 1925 trial.  Coverage in USA Today and the Huffington Post offer a sample of the way every journalist seems obliged to mention Scopes.

However, as perspicacious observers have noted, this new law represents something very different from the 1925 event.  Today’s laws demonstrate a remarkable shift in the strategy and nature of anti-evolution activism.  As Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center pointed out, today “the curriculum shoe is on the other foot.”

Haynes is right.  The power in public schools has shifted decisively.  Anti-evolution activists today do not try to ban evolution from public schools.  Rather, anti-evolutionists these days struggle to insert wedges into school curricula.  They hope to create opportunities for teachers and students to question the scientific claims of evolution.  At the time of the Scopes trial in 1925, anti-evolutionists had a much different agenda.

In my book Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era, (coming soon in paperback edition, pre-order today!), I explore the ways so-called “anti-evolution” laws in the 1920s included much more than simply the teaching of evolution or creation.  The laws themselves, including Tennessee’s 1925 Butler Act, usually preserved a special role for Protestant theology in public schools.  Other bills considered “anti-evolution” made much more sweeping claims.  In 1924, Representative John W. Summers of Washington successfully inserted an amendment banning “disrespect of the Holy Bible” among Washington D.C. teachers.  In a similar vein, one so-called anti-evolution bill in North Carolina (1927) actually would have banned any teaching that would “contradict the fundamental truth of the Holy Bible.”  A proposed bill in West Virginia cut an even broader swath.  That bill would have banned the teaching of “any nefarious matter in our public schools.”  In Florida, a 1927 bill hoped to prohibit teaching and textbooks that promoted “any theory that denies the existence of God, that denies the divine creation of man, or that teaches atheism or infidelity, or that contains vulgar, obscene, or indecent matter.”

These bills were about more than just prohibiting evolution. They asserted ideological and theological control over public schools.  Public schools, in the vision of these bill’s supporters, ought to do more than just ban evolution.  They ought to be purged of any notion that might challenge the traditional evangelical morality of students.
Today’s laws are also about more than the teaching of evolution, but in a very different way.  Rick Santorum’s non-binding rider to NCLB was more about making a statement about the nature of science, culture, and education than about transforming education.  It didn’t and couldn’t actually change the way teaching happened.  Some observers have suggested that Tennessee’s law will also not change a thing.

But such laws do change something.  For one thing, laws like the ones in Tennessee and Louisiana demonstrate the political power of anti-evolutionism.  These laws show that significant numbers of voters in those states agree with this kind of cultural statement against the claims of mainstream science.  Laws like these also tell us something about the ways schooling is controlled.  If mainstream scientists cannot simply decide what will be the best sort of science education, then we can see that schooling is not simply a neutral institution in which knowledge is disseminated.  Rather, laws like this show clearly that knowledge is political.  Schools do not simply teach what is true.  Schools teach what culture decides children should know.