Thursday, July 17, 2008

What is "Academic Freedom"?

The Louisiana Governor recently signed a new law that will allow science teachers to introduce "supplemental materials" on contentious subjects such as evolution, cloning, and global warming. The motivation for this law sounds very noble. Lawmakers want to "allow and assist teachers...to promote students' critical thinking skills and open discussion of scientific theories." Makes sense, right?

The bill cleared the state's legislature with very little opposition. Supporters are cheering the new law as a victory for "academic freedom." The Discovery Institute has several links posted on its home page to articles positively commenting Louisiana's law. This is one of them:
Louisiana Confounds the Science Thought Police
Neo-Darwinism is no longer a protected orthodoxy in the Bayou State's pedagogy
By: John G. West
National Review Online
July 8, 2008
But as usual, I'm in the "wet blanket" club. Personally, I think this law offers some reason for concern. As I understand it, the law doesn't outline any specifics in terms of how scientifically accurate these "supplementary materials" need to be. The only restraint is that they be religiously neutral. So it's no wonder that this law has stirred up a swirl of new controversy about the introduction of ID ideas into public school classrooms, particularly because it claims to be a secular, non-religious research project.

In my opinion, this law has the potential to inject a weird sort of post-modern perspective into science. Are we going to say that all scientific interpretations are equally valid? On what basis will students judge these materials and use their "critical thinking skills"? The law doesn't say.

Moreover, while Christians are clamoring for academic freedom in public schools (namely, they want to be included in the discussion), they frequently don't allow academic freedom in their own universities. Academic freedom can be a two-edged sword. We want it, but we don't want to allow it. Or at least, we want to control it. But isn't that what the public schools are doing, too?

Case in point: How many Christian colleges would even allow an old-earth perspective to be taught? Many Christian colleges frequently don't even welcome the various Christian perspectives to be taught in a fair and balanced way. Likewise, many of the churches that will hail this law as being a win in the culture war against Darwinism won't allow Hugh Ross to preach in their pulpit in spite of the fact that he specifically names Jesus Christ as the Creator, and not some nameless Designer. Am I the only one who sees the irony here?

Is there truly any such thing as "academic freedom"? Especially for Christians? If so, what would it look like?

For more about this, I'd recommend the recent discussion by Dr. Hugh Ross and Fuz Rana on their "Science News Flash" podcast (see right sidebar).

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