Is school favoring one side of a debate over the other?
Poor Ball State University can’t catch a break. First, the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained that a physics and astronomy professor was improperly mixing religion and science in the classroom. Now the school is being attacked from the other side – the Discovery Group, a think tank devoted to “intelligent design” says a course taught by an English professor relies solely on the book “What Is Your Dangerous Idea?” that “appears to be one long argument for atheism.”
In the first case, BSU President Jo Ann Gora investigated and concluded that intelligent design “is not appropriate for science classes” in a public university classroom because it is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief, not a scientific theory. She says she will investigate this case, too, to determine the course material’s appropriateness.
A lot of people will be watching to see how she rules. If it’s wrong to bring religion into the classroom, is it just as wrong to bring in atheism (assuming the charge against the class is true)? Does keeping one out but not the other amount to “favoring or endorsing one side of a religious debate over another,” as the Discovery Group is contending?
One big difference is that the intelligent design objection was raised about a science classroom, which made the introduction of religion obviously inappropriate. Certainly intelligent design and other forms of creationism belong in college, just not in science classes. Religion requires faith; science seeks proof. The two are not the same thing, and to pretend one is the other diminishes both.
But the dangerous ideas book is being taught by an English professor. Should such a class be required to have balance by presenting counter-arguments to everything? Or is it just religious and anti-religious ideas that have to be pitted against each other? Isn’t college exactly the place for “dangerous ideas” as demanding teachers push students to think critically about things?
It is tempting to tell all these interest groups to back off and leave the school alone. Certainly they can go too far and be too demanding. If university officials have to constantly worry about defending every class that is taught, it can detract greatly from the school’s academic mission.
But as citizens and taxpayers, not to mention parents, we all have a stake in what is taught in our public universities, and we should all want to know what goes on in them. Objections raised by interested parties – yes, go ahead and call them “interest groups” – help us find out what our children might be learning and also foster healthy debates that can inform our thinking about public policy.