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Academic Freedom for Politically Correct Professors Thrives at KU

My old college town paper, the Lawrence Journal-World, reports that two new classes at the University of Kansas will work to discredit the theory of intelligent design. One class, taught by religion professor Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s religious studies department, was initially titled Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and Other Religious Mythologies. In an e-mail to an atheist listserv, Mirecki wrote: “The fundies [fundamentalists] want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category mythology.”

Mirecki later apologized for the e-mail, noting that he didn’t intend for the e-mail to end up in the public square.

Meanwhile, another class seeking to distinguish science from pseudoscience will be taught not by a philosopher of science or even by a historian of science, but rather by John Hoopes, associate professor of anthropology. Journal-World reporter Sophia Maines writes, “In addition to intelligent design, the class Archaeological Myths and Realities will cover such topics as UFOs, crop circles, extrasensory perception and the ancient pyramids.”

I wonder if Hoopes will also cover myths like the eternal, self-existent universe, spontaneous generation, the ubiquity of alien life on earthlike planets throughout the galaxy, or the deep-seated faith that secular humanism and polyester fabrics will one day reign supreme (think Star Trek).

An eternal universe, spontaneous generation, and alien life have all been used to support philosophical materialism, the belief that, to quote that great modern mythmaker Carl Sagan, “The universe is all there is, ever was, or ever will be.” After all, one doesn’t need to explain the origin of a universe that always existed; and if life springs effortlessly from non-life then the thorny problem of the origin of life evaporates; and if the universe spins out habitable planets, habitable star systems, and habitable galaxies with ease, if the universe is teeming with intelligent life, then our existence is hardly remarkable.

But scientific research has exposed each of these as false. Take the eternal universe model. It was widely accepted among scientists a hundred years ago in the face of the second law of thermodynamics. As Paul Davies explains on page 11 of God and the New Physics, if the universe has had an infinite amount of time to drift into disorder, why is it currently so orderly? It must not be infinitely old. This point was ignored not because any scientific evidence supported the eternal universe model but because the model was needed to support the philosophical beliefs of leading scientists. The model wasn’t dispensed with as soon as the evidence turned against it, but only after a good deal of kicking and screaming. As philosopher and Privileged Planet co-author Jay Richards explains here:

The trouble started in the 1920s when astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered that the light from distant galaxies was “red-shifted.” It had stretched during the course of its travels. This suggested the universe is expanding. Reversing the process in their minds, scientists were suddenly confronted with a universe that had come into existence in the finite past. Who knew! Hubble’s discovery, confirmed by later evidence, flatly contradicted the earlier picture of an eternal and self-existing cosmos. The universe itself had re-introduced the question of its origin to a community bent on avoiding the question altogether.

For a discussion of spontaneous generation and the origin-of-life problem, see pages 23-4 of Darwin’s Black Box. I could also explain how the polyester future fits in here, but it would involve several pages of close cultural analysis of things like leisure suits and the pros and cons of tight-fitting synthetic uniforms on aging Hollywood actors, so I’m not going to go there.

When I taught at KU back in the ’90s, I received good teacher evaluations, but I was reprimanded by the coordinator of freshman composition because two students who happened to be earning abysmal grades complained that I was injecting religion into the classroom. How had I done this? When I taught Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” I explained to the students the religious background of both the author and characters. When I taught Isaac Bashevis Singer, I explained the religious background of the author and characters. When I taught “The Open Boat” by Stephen Crane, I described philosophical materialism, the worldview conveyed in the story. Some students asked me what my own belief system was, and I said I was a Christian. We then moved back into a discussion of the literature. For such behavior I was called into an office and reprimanded.

Fortunately, that was not representative of my experience at KU. What I valued about my time as a graduate student there was the genuine diversity of faculty views. Unlike some universities that talk about diversity but fill all of their faculty positions with anti-Christian and anti-Jewish secular humanists, my academic work at KU brought me into contact with a broad range of worldviews, from atheists to pantheists to conservative and moderate Catholics to professors who weren’t sure what they believed.

I fear that this KU of ten years ago may be vanishing. Perhaps it was an accident of timing, a university with an older generation of professors, many of whom held to some form of traditional theism, some of them even politically and religiously conservative or moderate, steadily replaced over the subsequent decade by far left wing secular humanists.

This shouldn’t surprise us. The radical left believes that all politics are about power, so why should they, when the balance of power tips in their favor, assiduously cultivate intellectual diversity in the various academic departments The puzzling thing is that the taxpapers, voters, and statesmen of deeply conservative states like Kansas appear unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Are they cowed by the charge that taking action would be infringe upon academic freedom? In truth, action is essential for protecting academic freedom.

Over Thanksgiving my brother-in-law told me about a professor who, a generation ago, was appointed editor of the Dartmouth school newspaper. Shortly thereafter he let it be known that he was a political conservative. For this he was sacked from his position as editor. Dinesh D’Souza tells the story in Letters to a Young Conservative. The question is, when things like this occur openly at public universities, in states heavily populated by conservatives and traditional liberals who value academic freedom, why won’t the politicians who represent them stand up and do something? And I don’t mean token gestures. I’m talking about strategic and sustained efforts at reform, the sort of bold, shrewd leadership that freed Poland from the grip of Communism. I’m genuinely curious.

Jonathan Witt

Executive Editor, Discovery Institute Press and Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Witt, PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a senior fellow and senior project manager with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. His latest book is Heretic: One Scientist’s Journey from Darwin to Design (DI Press, 2018) written with Finnish bioengineer Matti Leisola. Witt has also authored co-authored Intelligent Design Uncensored, A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature, and The Hobbit Party: The Vision of Freedom That Tolkien Got, and the West Forgot. Witt is the lead writer and associate producer for Poverty, Inc., winner of the $100,000 Templeton Freedom Award and recipient of over 50 international film festival honors.