Friday, December 17, 2004

Putting truth out to pasture 

The St. Cloud Times has had a series of flamebaiting letters lately but none so asbestos-needy as this one from Prof. Alan Downes. (If you come to this article after Friday 12/17/04 you will need to dig the article out of the archives for that day. C'mon, SCTimes, get an online archive that actually holds a URL more than 24 hours!!!) Downes was a professor in a department called "Interdisciplinary Studies", which was a holding tank for programs that didn't fit in any discipline (and a few programs like gerontology and urban studies which weren't big enough to stand as departments on their own.) They should have called it the Department of Undisciplined Studies. Downes is the quintessential leftist this department housed. The department was splintered about a decade ago, but its spawn now contains such luminaries as Miss Median.

So Prof. Downes wants to bring his experience to the question of whether instruction at SCSU is hostile towards Christians.
The task of the state university is to teach nonreligious subject matter, asking nonreligious questions and requiring nonreligious answers. All students, regardless of religion, should learn certain nonreligious skills and facts.

Funny, I thought the purpose of academic life was to seek truth. Prof. Downes seems to be presupposing that there is no truth in religion, no? I'll return to this question at the end of this post, but for the moment I just want to highlight that assumption in Downes' argument.
Problems arise when students cannot tell the difference and give religious answers to nonreligious questions. The problem is most acute when the student gives wrong answers to nonreligious questions and then attempts to defend the wrong answers by claiming that they are religion.

One cannot categorically presuppose what is a nonreligious question. Downes gives the example of someone saying that they believe 2+2=5 as a matter of religious belief, and that this must be wrong. The relevance of this statement to religion is dubious -- Christianity does nothing to deny Cartesian mathematics, nor Riemann mathematics. The statement 2+2=5 is wrong in the context that one is teaching a traditional mathematics, not that one is teaching a nonreligious question. A student asserting the math to be correct is required to place it in the context of a world wherein that statement could be so.

Likewise, "miracle biology" or "miracle physics" is a canard Downes throws out -- in the history of this planet, using the information we have now, we have a theory of evolution that contains many key insights and serves as received wisdom. One can certainly hold that view and also find wisdom in the story found in the first book of Genesis. As my pastor explains often to me (because I tend to think in categorical Greek ways like Downes), the stories of the Bible are truth in a different sense. Genesis 1 is not a proposition of an alternative to evolution but an appeal for the reader to confront "how did we get here?" It says to evolutionary theory that the biologist's work, the physicist's work, still has some ways to go, and opens one to the possibility that some of the story of how we got here will be unknowable.
Speaking for myself as a professor and as one who relies on graduates for future products and services, I would flunk students who answer tests with wrong answers labeled "religion."

Speaking for myself as a professor, I would ascertain whether the student had given a logically consistent answer, regardless of the label, as long as the student accepted the premises of the question I ask. If Downes stands before a class and says "you may not use any religious beliefs in the answering of questions in my class," he has that right as part of his academic freedom. But he cannot deny that he has placed his belief system in front of those of his students. And what is that belief system? We get it in the very next sentence:
Professors are paid to ensure that students can successfully do the work of society. The economy does not work simply by miracles.

That's the sentence that floored me. Behold the language of a Bolshevik. I am not paid to make my students drones of the Great Socialist Experiment, Professor, and neither are you. You are paid to help them learn to think for themselves, to learn to inquire.
The oil does not get changed, the vaccine does not get made, the surgery is not successful if workers do not learn appropriate nonreligious skills.

True, but as Adam Smith pointed out 208 years ago,
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
Not those of society. Downes substitutes love of the state for love of God, which strikes me as a pretty useful definition of fascism. The state as a religion. He concludes
Teachers should not let incompetence sneak by with the claim that it is religion.

And students should not let socialist , atheistic ideology sneak by with the claim that it is somehow nonreligious.