The Illiberalism of The Late Modern Academy

william-jennings-bryanIn the conventional story of the 1925 Scopes Trial, popularized in the 1960 play and film, Inherit the Wind, William Jennings Bryan is the midwestern rube unable and more importantly unwilling to account for and afraid of new learning. WJB is portrayed as illiberal and close-minded. There seems to be another Scopes Trial of sorts. This one is taking place in Muncie, Indiana on the campus of Ball State University. The difference, here, however, is that it is the theists who are arguing for liberality and it is the “scientists” who seem to be afraid and close minded.

This story has not been covered extensively in the secular or academic press so it is difficult to get all the details but let’s follow the coverage in The Chronicle of Higher Education and one other non-partisan source. According to an August 1, 2013 story by Peter Schmidt, Eric Hedin, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, whose specialization seems to be physics (my interpretation of his CV), was “investigated” by an ad hoc committee, the composition of which does not appear to have met the standards of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), of which Ball State is a member. According to a 21 August 2013 editorial by Daniel Murphy, “the university failed to employ its own internal controls on both the execution of the course and in the manner in which it treated Professor Hedin in the aftermath of protest by external constituencies….” According to Murphy, the Ball State’s provost ignored faculty policy in constituting the committee and had the committee report only to him. According to Murphy, Hedin never received a hearing before his peers, contrary to the AAUP policy. Murphy argues that academic freedom has been jeopardized by the actions taken by Ball State University.

Why is Hedin in trouble? The controversy began in April 2013 when Jerry A. Coyne, who teaches at the University of Chicago, published a blog post attacking Hedin for teaching religion in a science course. It’s a blog post but to this historian it seems fairly hysterical. In May the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter and in reaction, Ball State established this apparently dubious committee the next day. Heaven forbid that a school should not react immediately to the learned inquiries of the FFRF. On 31 August 2013, the University’s President, Jo Ann Gora announced that hereafter Intelligent Design Theory shall no longer be discussed in any science courses at BSU. It may be discussed in liberal arts courses but only as a theory and it may not be taught to be superior to any other theories. Ironically, BSU seems to be something of a haven for ID since in July of this year they hired a controversial advocate for ID, Guillermo Gonzalez, who made news when he was denied tenure at Iowa State. He has since taught at Grove City College.

The other irony here is that it is Clarence Darrow, as it were, who now appears to be the fearful rube. Ball State deserves credit for hiring Gonzalez but they deserve scorn for banning the discussion of ID in science classes for two reasons. First, the notion that scientists may not discuss the ultimate meaning or implications of what they do is as foolish as it is naive. Doesn’t anyone read Michael Polanyi any more? Who thinks that “scientists” are just mechanics? Who thinks there is not a subjective element in the way experiments are designed and interpreted? Who thinks scientists do their work in an intellectual vacuum? No one who is remotely thoughtful about or aware of the history of science and the state of learning could possibly still think of “science” in the naive way the President Gora’s language or Coyne’s suggests. Second, the assumption that the universe must be closed and the evidence cannot be interpreted to support belief in God is not science. It is a profoundly religious a priori. A scientist, a scholar, a truly open-minded person looks at all the evidence and asks where the evidence leads. It is the definition of bigotry to decide beforehand where the evidence can and cannot lead. This is why Coyne’s blog post is so hysterical. He’s afraid of open enquiry. Translate his screed into Latin and it would likely put to shame any 17th century Romanist denunciation of (what was then) the new astronomy.

Why does any reputable academic institution care what a group like the Freedom From Religion Foundation thinks? Are they scholars? Are they honest inquirers after truth or are they partisans bent on imposing their worldview, their religious convictions by fear and intimidation? To ask such questions is to answer them. This is the equivalent of the tough guys intimidating the nerds in high school. To this outsider, however, in trying to satisfy the demands of the intolerant mob, David Letterman’s alma mater has made itself look small and illiberal.

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  1. I took a glance at the linked blog post, he does have one small point that this does not look like a science class as much as a philosophy of science class (dealing as you suggest with “ultimate meaning or implications”).

    But just because it is a cross-disciplinary class, does that somehow mean it cannot be taught within the context of either of the disciplines it crosses? Would a physics department not be allowed to teach a class on the history of astronomy? Could a bioethics course not be taught in a biology department? Could not a psychology department teach mathematical classes on statistics or experimental design? etc, etc.

    • That’s one of my objections. The idea that “science”—remember this is a fairly modern way of speaking; the word scientia was used for a long time before it came to stand for lab-coated priests meditating “true” empirical reality, which changes every 7 years—is done without a philosophy is ridiculous. It’s as silly as thinking that creedless churches have no creed or anti-litiurgical worship has no liturgy. I know that you know better but apparently there are members of the lab-coat brigade who are way behind the times.

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