Liberal Education or Left-Wing Indoctrination?

What is college for?  Should students stretch their minds by considering all sorts of competing, even conflicting ideas?  Or should young adults learn to intone the hackneyed, ideologically purified phrases of a single viewpoint?

Many conservative pundits these days insist that too many colleges have become left-wing reeducation camps.  But does that match our experience?

In a recent review of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty for the Hoover Institution’s Defining Ideas, Bruce Thornton heartily agrees that too many institutions of higher education have slid into the heavy mire of politically correct intellectual conformity.

unlearning_libertyA self-proclaimed “liberal,” Lukianoff’s Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has led a campaign to open college campuses to true intellectual controversy.

As Thornton notes, Lukianoff’s book chronicles example after example of over-eager campus authorities cracking down on students’ free speech rights.  For instance, one Yale student was punished in 2009 for wearing a t-shirt that quoted F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The offending shirt proclaimed—in the run-up to a big football game—that “all Harvard men are sissies.”

These and a host of other speech clampdowns are led by an army of humorless, vindictive student enforcers, whom Thornton calls “sensitivity commissars.”  The problem, as Thornton relates, is that “in orientation programs, only one point of view, the progressive-leftist one, is allowed a hearing, and students who resist it are subjected to sanctions and shaming exercises worthy of religious cults.”

The pattern of repression, Thornton insists, is not applied equally.  “Christians,” Thornton writes, “are particularly singled out for censorship, as are Republican organizations and other conservative groups, especially pro-Israel ones, whose publications are often vandalized, campus events attacked, and speakers shouted down.”

These notions of an oppressive left-wing campus Red-Guardism seem widely shared among conservative writers.  But do they match our experience?

I teach at a large public university in the northeast.  Perhaps I’m not sensitive enough to it, but our sprawling campus seems to welcome a real variety of speech, student and otherwise.  We have student groups for a variety of religious viewpoints, some of them resolutely conservative.  Self-identified “conservative” students with whom I talk report that they do not feel particularly shut out or victimized.  The campus is peppered with outside speakers who promote a kaleidoscope of ideas, from Biblical literalism to aggressive atheism.

Colleagues report similar experiences.  One science-education academic from a large public university in the Southeast tells me his education colleagues repeatedly indoctrinate their pre-service teachers with a message of Christian religiosity.

These are admittedly sketchy and anecdotal reports, but some more careful research seems to back it up.  David Long’s ethnography revealed a host of creationist students and faculty at public, pluralistic colleges.  Amy Binder’s and Kate Wood’s study of two leading schools revealed plenty of opportunity for conservative students at such schools, even if some students reported feeling victimized or shut out of campus life.

Perhaps the answer lies in broadening the lens.  Elite schools such as Yale might have rigid thought-police regimes.  However, we must remember two important facts: not many college students go to Yale, and even Yale produced William F. Buckley.

David Long at the Smithsonian

Drop your plans for Friday!

You need to get down to our nation’s scenic capital for a stirring panel discussion of evolution education.

ILYBYGTH contributor David Long will take part, along with participants from the Smithsonian’s “What Does It Mean to Be Human” Broader Social Impacts Committee.

The event will take place at 12:30 in the Baird Auditorium, National Museum of Natural History.  Free and open to the public.  Don’t miss it!

smithsonian flyer

Zimmerman: Give Us Affirmative Action for Conservative Professors

Jonathan Zimmerman of NYU has offered a bold proposal: Let’s have affirmative action for hiring conservative college professors.  Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, Zimmerman suggested such a program would go a long way to increasing the intellectual diversity of college life.  Zimmerman argues as a liberal Democrat, but one interested in promoting true liberal diversity.

As Zimmerman points out, one US Supreme Court justice’s argument in favor of traditional racial affirmative action,

“included the observations of a Princeton graduate student, who stated that ‘people do not learn very much when they are surrounded only by the likes of themselves.’

“That’s exactly right. And it’s also why we need more right-leaning professors, who would accelerate the intellectual variation that Bakke imagined. Race-based affirmative action has made our universities much more interesting and truly educational places, adding a range of voices and experiences that hadn’t been heard before. Hiring more conservative faculty would do the same thing.” 

Zimmerman makes a compelling argument.  I’m all for authentic intellectual diversity, especially on a university campus.

But there are a couple of points that must be added.  First of all, as we’ve noted, at least one prominent public university has initiated a program to bring high-profile conservatives to its famously liberal campus.  As critics have pointed out, that program has some of the worst elements of tokenism and political engineering of intellectual life.

More important, the heavy tilt toward political liberalism Zimmerman denounces may not be so heavy at non-elite campuses.  Zimmerman notes the profound bias in favor of Democratic election donations among faculty at Columbia, Brown, and Wisconsin.  He notes that none of his NYU colleagues seem to tilt Republican.  But what about at the schools that actually teach most of the country’s college students?  David Long’s provocative ethnography of creationism at a large public university suggests that a substantial proportion of faculty at those schools embrace deeply conservative religious values.

So let’s get a little more specific: What we really need is something beyond a few token conservative faculty.  Just as with racial affirmative action, we need to create intellectual and institutional spaces where conservative scholars can thrive, not just survive.  And we need this specifically at the nation’s top schools, places that can set the trend for other colleges and universities.  Like Professor Zimmerman, I don’t speak as a partisan.  I’m no conservative.  But I do agree that a truly diverse environment is a compelling goal of higher education.  In order to learn about the world, students must be surrounded with people who come from different backgrounds, with different ideas.  Hiring faculty with a wide diversity of ideologies would promote that goal.

ILYBYGTH in the Chronicle of Higher Education

Hot off the presses!  I’m happy to say that the Chronicle of Higher Education is running a commentary of mine in this morning’s edition.

Readers of ILYBYGTH might not find much new in this piece.  I argue that many evolution educators display a woeful and unproductive misunderstanding of creationism.  For instance, evolution supporters generally assume that creationists such as US Representative Paul Broun must be utterly ignorant of science.  In fact, Broun and many other creationists often have degrees in science.  Broun, for instance, has a BS in chemistry and an MD.

As political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer have demonstrated, creationists often know plenty about evolution.  Creationists just don’t believe it.

Another tricky point about Representative Broun’s particular style of creationism rests in the nature of representative democracy.  As I ask in the CHE piece, “Do we really want to demand than an elected official not fight for the ideas in which his constituents believe?”

I also appreciate the comments on the online CHE article.  There are some of the usual displays of huffy antagonism.  For instance, one reader suggested that the best lenses to understand creationism would be “abnormal psychology” and “cult theory.”  But other commenters raised more intriguing points.  One suggested that the real issue is that American education tends not to teach students anything they don’t know already.  Another pointed out that any teaching that seems to come between parents and children will be resisted.

I’ll look forward to reading more comments as they come in.  Especially since many of them make excellent counter-arguments.


Creationists Excel in Science

What’s wrong with teaching creationism?  Some folks say creationism will block America’s students from learning science.  I oppose the teaching of creationism as science in public schools, but this argument does not hold up.  As uncomfortable as it might be for non-creationists like me, we need to abandon the false argument that creationism is incompatible with learning science.

We see it now and again.  For instance, in a recent editorial in Church & State, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State insisted that creationism “leaves youngsters woefully unprepared for the demanding science courses many of them will encounter in college.”

Similarly, in his recent Youtube video against creationism, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” insisted that creationism would cripple science education.  “I say to the [creationist] grownups,” Nye announced,

“if you want to deny evolution and live in your world, in your world that’s completely inconsistent with everything we observe in the universe, that’s fine, but don’t make your kids do it because we need them. We need scientifically literate voters and taxpayers for the future. We need people that can—we need engineers that can build stuff, solve problems.”

This is a powerful argument.  We must teach science well and thoroughly, otherwise young people will not be able to understand the world.  Young people robbed of scientific education will not be able to contribute to society.

Unfortunately for those of us who want to promote more comprehensive evolution education, this argument does not hold up when we examine it closely.  Turns out creationist students can do just fine with science.  We need to grapple with this inconvenient truth.  It seems that—somehow—creationists do fine with science.

Consider a few examples.

From the recent headlines, US Representative Paul Broun received a lot of criticism for his comments that evolution, along with embryology and the Big Bang, were “lies from the pit of hell.”  Many of Broun’s critics insisted that Broun was utterly ignorant of science.  Now, I don’t agree with Broun’s ideas about evolution or astrophysics.  But we non-creationists have to acknowledge that Broun, an MD with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, is not really utterly ignorant of science.  He certainly understands it differently, but it is a false refuge to conclude that he is simply ignorant.  He has been educated in science.  It appears he somehow chooses creationism in spite of this education.

Or take one of the most famous creationists of the twentieth century, Henry Morris.  In spite of Bill Nye’s lament that creationism will block the flow of “engineers that can build stuff,” Morris held a PhD in hydraulic engineering from the University of Minnesota.  At the same time, Morris led the way for a new sort of creationism with his books and institutional leadership.

There are other leading creationists with scientific credentials.  Kurt Wise, for instance, earned his PhD in geology at Harvard.

But we non-creationists could take some solace from the notion that exceptions are always possible.  We could tell ourselves that a few outliers do not prove that creationism is somehow compatible with scientific education.  Like the folks at Project Steve, we could take comfort from the fact that overwhelming numbers of scientists DO embrace evolution.

However, those who have looked closely at the broader picture suggest that creationists often do just fine with mainstream science education.

Political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer, for instance, found in their large-sample survey of high-school biology teachers that many self-professed creationists had completed lots of college-level science classes.  Of the teachers who professed a belief in young-earth creationism, 32% had completed a full-semester course in evolutionary science.  More than one in ten (13%) held a graduate degree in science.  Almost half (49%) had earned forty or more college credits in biology.

These creationists managed to do fine in what Americans United called “the demanding science courses” in college.  The creationist teachers, to evolutionists’ chagrin, must be acknowledged to be among Bill Nye’s “scientifically literate voters.”

Clearly, something else is going on here.  For those of us outside the circle of creationist thinking, it is difficult to understand how creationists can combine the utterly unscientific notions of a young earth with such widespread success in the highest levels of academic science.  How do they do it?

David Long’s ethnography provides at least one clue.  Long studied creationist students enrolled in a secular biology program at a large public university.  The results suggest some disturbing lessons for those of us who want a more thorough evolutionary education.  As one of his informants described, doing well in college science classes was a snap.  “I take those really big classes,” this student informed Long,

“because it’s really easy to excel in those huge classes.  I mean, I got like a hundred on every test.  You have to be an idiot pretty much not to.  If you just sit, and you listen to what they’re saying, and you know how to take tests, it’s very easy to do well in those classes.”

Long’s ethnographic study can’t tell us how common this experience is among creationist students.  But it suggests a far more complicated educational reality than the black-and-white schemes suggest by Bill Nye and Americans United.  In a nutshell, creationists do fine in college science classes.  They do fine in science-related careers such as engineering, teaching, and medicine.

If we really want to improve evolution education in the United States, we need to wrestle with this perplexing fact: Creationists excel in science.

Required Reading: Moran’s American Genesis

From time to time people ask me for a place to start.  For those who don’t want to dedicate their entire lives to understanding the creation/evolution controversies, they ask, what is one smart, short book that offers a useful introduction?

I am very happy to suggest a new book by Jeffrey Moran of the University of Kansas: American Genesis: The Evolution Controversies from Scopes to Creation Science.  In the newest edition of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education, I offer a brief review of this terrific book.

Moran was already the author of two essential books on my shelf, Teaching Sex and The Scopes Trial.  In American Genesis Moran does more than just hash over the history of controversy.  As I write in my NCSE review,

“Moran examines the history of antievolutionism as more than just religion, more than just science. As Moran explains, ideas about evolution offer a unique “mirror, however distorted, of [American] culture itself” (p 24). The most intriguing sections of American Genesis, accordingly, offer readers more than just a clear and compelling brief history of the American antievolution “impulse” (p x). Moran demonstrates the ways that anti-evolutionism has been both a bellwether and an influence on broader trends in American culture. In the first three chapters, Moran’s book approaches antievolutionism as a question not only of religion and science, but also of gender, region, and race.”

In just under 200 pages Moran crafts an argument that connects anti-evolutionism to the bigger pictures of American history and culture.  His book is consistently readable and wonderfully worthwhile for both experts and the general public.

Those interested in creation/evolution will find other items of interest in the most recent Reports of the NCSE.  The editors include a review of David Long’s ethnographic study of creationism among college students and Jason Rosenhouse’s Among the Creationists.

Worth checking out!


Marxists and Creationists: Peas in a Pod?

Are Marxists and Creationists sharing carrel space at American universities?

A query by Kurt Newman at the ever-interesting US Intellectual History blog generated a lively discussion of the question: How many Marxist historians are out there?

Reading the discussions led me to wonder a different question: Are academic Marxists and creationists flip sides of the same coin?

Darwin. Image Source: Humanist Life

Full disclosure: I’ve got thoroughly Marxist intellectual roots myself.  As an undergraduate, I found Marxism and its derivatives intensely interesting; those years remain profoundly influential in my thinking.  On the other hand, I’ve never been a creationist, though recently I’ve been accused of being one.  My intellectual world in my formative years had absolutely nothing to do with religion, the Bible, or creationism.

I’m not trying to promote one or the other, but the similarities between the two traditions jumped out at me.  Allow me to list a few of the obvious parallels:

  • Both Marxists and creationists remain surprisingly common on mainstream college campuses.  As David Long discovered when he began his ethnographic study of creationism on secular campuses, creationists are far more common than one might think.  The same result for Marxists becomes starkly clear when we read the responses to Newman’s query at USIH.
  • Both Marxists and creationists could make some claim to being persecuted.  Certainly, many mainstream scientists would not want to have creationist faculty in their departments.  And, as Newman points out in one of his comments, Marxist professors have a long history of institutional controversy.  Newman astutely mentioned in one aside, “(This is to say nothing of the apoplexy that would be induced in large swaths of the political class upon learning that any state-funded school was offering Marxist classes under the guise of US history, which might also say something about the stakes of doing Marxist research in 2012).”
  • Both Marxists and creationists could be accused of clinging obdurately to an intellectual tradition whose heyday has come and gone.
  • Both Marxist and creationist intellectuals and academics have always been famously and ferociously sectarian.  Gramsci-ites might not speak with Trotskyites, who might look down their noses at Bernsteinians, etc.  The same is true with today’s creationist galaxy of “evolutionary creationism,” “young-earth,” pre-Adamics, post-Adamics, day-agers, gap theorists, etc. etc. etc.

Marx. Image Source: Georgia Spears

Of course, some obvious differences jump out at us.  Here are a couple:

  • Marxism is profoundly secular, though some have called it a religion.  Creationism is profoundly religious, though some have insisted on its secular merits.
  • The two groups have enormous sociological differences.  Creationism does not thrive at elite schools, while Marxism seems to. The background of each group of scholars likely differs immensely.
  • Marxism seems to be losing influence outside the academy, while creationism has been steadily gaining strength in politics and popular culture for the past century.

So, are these flip sides of the same phenomenon?  Intellectuals who pride themselves on their superior insight into the workings of humanity and history?  Folks who take encouragement from the cultural slings and arrows directed their way?

Just askin…