A free speech problem at a community college regarding creationism:"Do you want to bring the Nazis to campus?"


(josh abraham) #1

I was given the chance to teach about the history of the science-religion contact in American life at a Dallas community college that is very politically blue and ethnically a minority campus, surrounded as Dallas is by an ocean of red counties.

Given white evangelicals voted for Trump at a 4:1 ratio, and given the Chronicle of Higher Education documents the growing difficulty of bringing conservatives to campuses to speak, I was faced with an opportunity and a problem.

The Institute for Creation Research is right here, and its influence reaches millions of Americans including many students I have right now. Why not invite a staff member to class to dialogue with students?

I tell them ahead of time I am not trying to tell them what to think about science and religion, but to simply give them historical context for the interface over time.

I asked my dean and he looked at me as if to say, “Do you want to bring the Nazis to campus?”

Free speech has become a huge problem at public colleges. With Trump, even more huge.

So here are the homeschooled students and Christian school students in my classes, interacting with their non-Christian peers for the rest of their lives.

Can a creationist be heard in this political fracas we live in, or are we all doomed to live in silos?

If you have any suggestions here is what the dean said.

“You must collaborate with your colleagues and collectively appeal to the president.”

So my options are…

  1. Be a controversial loose cannon and sneak the ICR staff into class without telling anyone, and get labeled as a right-wing wacko for the rest of my teaching career.

  2. Cancel the event for now—I was planning on November 15, and the ICR staff teaches at a church in the immediate neighborhood of the college—and negotiate for a year or more to see if a collaboration is possible.

Your thoughts?

Thanks


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #2

I really do not see why you want to have an ICR speaker on campus.

It sounds as if one is speaking off campus, so your students can go to this event. Also clearly they are on the internet, so their position is readily available.

Yes, it might be nice to have an event on campus, and the dean is being closed minded, but I don’t think that this is your problem. You need to give your students the best class available. Have them attend the event off of campus if they are interested or you want them to go.


(Stephen Matheson) #3

You portray the question as though ICR speakers are “conservatives” and the resistance to their presence involves “silos” and a “political fracas.” I don’t think it’s that straightforward.

Weird ideas exist in a continuum from (my terms) utterly ludicrous (call that a 1) to valid but not broadly accepted (call that a 10). So, no college should host a speaker showing video of an alien autopsy or demonstrating a perpetual-motion machine. Those are 1s. But every college should welcome speakers discussing the probability of intelligent life outside earth or speculating about fusion power. Those are 10s. The judgments that are harder to make are probably in the 2-4 range. Since I put ICR ideas in the 1-2 range, then I would hesitate to invite ICR speakers to a college campus. They are, in my judgment, too “out there.”

I understand the motivation for engaging these kinds of ideas, but the risk of legitimizing truly outlandish nonsense is something that colleges and their leaders do have to consider.


(Phil) #4

I think that it depends on how balanced the presentations are, and how relevant they are to the course work. If you bring an ICR speaker, are you also bringing in speakers discussing science and religion from an EC standpoint? Perhaps a Jewish speaker? Perhaps an atheist speaker to give their perspective? If so, they can hardly accuse you of being right wing. If you are not bringing in other viewpoints however, then perhaps such judgement is justified. A lot depends also on what you do with it as to how you have the students process the information presented.


(James McKay) #5

Hi Josh,

I’d share your concerns if you were just talking about inviting a random church pastor or somebody like that to come and talk to the students. There are far too many walls being built up between right and left politically – including among Christians – and we’re called to break down these divisions, not encourage them. And I do get the impression that there’s an increasing element of anti-Christian hostility in academia.

But you do need to realise that there are other, very serious, problems with young-earth creationism in particular that are nothing to do with the culture wars, and nothing to do with anti-Christian sentiment. The fact of the matter is that, although these people are claiming to do science, what they are presenting as “science” has no identifiable concept of quality control whatsoever. In fact, their approach to science demands a level of sloppiness that no scientist or technologist in their right mind would ever consider acceptable.

In the Real World, many areas of science have rigorous protocols and standards covering everything from how you calibrate your equipment to how you keep lab notes to getting your maths straight, peer review and reproducibility. Measurements are often made to four, five, six, seven, eight, nine or even ten significant digits.

We don’t see any of that in young-earthism. Young earth claims routinely cite tiny samples with huge error bars as “overwhelming” evidence for absurd new laws of fantasy physics that would have vaporised the earth if they had any basis in reality. Discrepancies in conventional scientific methods are routinely blown up out of all proportion, with errors of just a few percent being cited as evidence that all conventional methods could feasibly be out by factors of a million or more. And they are totally hostile to any form of peer review from outside their own echo chamber that is anything less than sycophantic.

Regardless of whether you’re right wing or left wing, Christian or atheist, it’s simply reckless and irresponsible to allow anyone to present that kind of thinking as science in schools and colleges — or, for that matter, in churches. Any responsible science educator should take a strong stance against any form of sloppy thinking, falsehood, unjustified assertions or resistance to critique. After all, if you tolerated these things in any other area of science and technology, you would end up killing people.


(Phil) #6

But remember, this is not a science class, it is a class on “the history of science-religion contact in the American life,” which is quite different, in my opinion, and which makes this OK to bring in the classroom, so long as handled properly, and not to argue the position as right or wrong.


(Randy) #7

And it is certainly relevant to discuss what a very large portion of Americans believe. But I would agree that you want to live at peace with all men and avoid irritating the dean; encourage his trust by being up front with him. I very much enjoyed your video and hope your class goes well.

You could show the Ham Nye or any other video, I guess

Young Earth creationists are generally pretty nice people–I attend one of their churches, am related to nearly 100% YEC, and used to be one! I also frequently learn from them.


(Roger A. Sawtelle) #8

The problem would be that I would think that the ICR spokesperson would consider his/her lecture to be science which would create the problem. That is why I would think that the lecture would be kept off campus, but the class should be encouraged or even required to attend to make sure no important lines are crossed.


(Phil) #9

Good point Randy. Ultimately, if under the authority and leadership of the dean, you are obligated to heed his warnings, but if you can make a good case and plan for the class, he might give his blessing. After all, the reaction before was just a dirty look. He has to answer to his boss also, so you have to respect that, also.
Roger’s suggestion of using off campus talks is good, but difficult with undergraduate students.


#10

“Nazis”? Really? Is that…“everyone who is politically to the right of me a Nazi”? Those kinds of Nazis?


(Christy Hemphill) #11

To be fair, the dean did not actually invoke Nazis, that was just Josh’s personal assessment of the horror expressed on his face at the mention of IRC.


#12

I think there is a difference between free speech and schools using discretion in what they present to students. Any student is free to stand in the middle of the quad and wax poetically about creationism. There is free speech. What creationists seem to want is legitimization, and that is where colleges should use some discernment. What you present to students should have academic or scientific merit, not simply what some people think.

Creationists have big ark parks, websites, published books, and speakers who go around to churches. They can be heard if people choose to listen. No one is stopping them.


(Steve Schaffner) #13

I’m still thinking about this one. Just because a view is a subject of a class doesn’t mean you have to invite someone who promotes that view to speak. In fact, a proponent might the last person you’d want for an objective view. Do classes on economic systems invite fervent boosters of capitalism and communism to present their pitches to the students?


(Phil) #14

True, but I know some teachers of comparative religion have speakers from the various religious groups come and speak, or even take field trips to the various places of worship.
I do not have strong feelings about it, and feel it depends on the course and the teacher. It would be interesting to know what the students think about all this, and hope the OP will share with us what reactions his students have to whatever material he finally presents.


(Steve Schaffner) #15

Yeah, I’m having trouble finding a general principle that could be easily applied here.


(Christy Hemphill) #16

I think the general principle would be whether the content of the guest speaker’s presentation furthered the objectives of the course. In other words, if a speaker from IRC could come and give objective historical information about their organization’s inception, influence and role in cultural dialogue, that might further the course objectives. Whether or not a representative of IRC could do that and not just proselytize would be the big question.


(system) #17

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