Impassioned Teaching

Article excerpt


In a recent episode of Law and Order. "Good Faith" (number 17017), a group of parents insisted that a biology teacher in a Christian school be fired for teaching evolution, or at least be forced to teach intelligent design as well. When the principal refused to support them, the teacher ended up dead. In defense of the father who admitted Io the killing (though, it turns out, for other reasons), the defense attorney argued that the teaching of evolution presented a real and Imminent threat to his daughter's life and salvation; by causing her to doubt her religious beliefs, the teacher was ensuring that she would burn in hell. The prosecuting attorney is incredulous and dismisses the defense's argument as having no legal standing, hut his associate realizes that this ilismis sive response might backfire, reinforcing the public's belief that liberal lawyers are intolerant of religious beliefs. And indeed, the tabloid headlines the next day read "Prosecutor v. Cod."

This episode made me think of our current debate over academic freedom, often presented as a conflict between liberal and conservative beliefs. In the September-October 2006 issue of . hádeme. Kurt Smith writes:

The strategy (of those defending intelligent design involves making it look as if the scientific convictions of biologists are political in nature. And politically, of course, folks have a right Io believe what they want. ... I lorowitz comes to the rescue by offering the [Academic hill of Rights, which]. . . . argues that because no one's political viewpoint should be kept out of the classroom, laws need to be in place to keep biologists from ruling out intelligent design.

Yet the Lau- and Order episode also shows that the impassioned teaching of evolution (indeed, of any subject) can, and often does, shape values. Once one comes to see the world differently through the study of a particular subject matter or the acceptance of a particular theory, one becomes a different kind of person, and a different kind of citizen - precisely the point, one would think, of higher education. That is, it is not so much what is said in the classroom that's at issue, hut the feared consequences of the liassions and commitments that our teaching may inspire.

False Opposition

The ongoing debate over academic freedom in venues such iisAcademe, the Chronicle of 'Higher Education, andtheA'c/r York Times frames the issue in terms of a clash between values and politics on the one hand, and scholarship on the other. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education. David Horowitz 's "Academic Kill of Rights" was developed in response to the belief that the academy is dominated hv leftists and biased against conservative scholars and students. The intent of the hill is "to remove partisan politics from the classroom'' ("In Defense of Intellectual Diversity," February 13, 2004). On this point, it would seem Horowitz is in agreement with his critics. Literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish, for example, has argued in the New York 'Times ("Advocacy and Teaching," March 24, 2007) that one should separate one's scholarly self from one's partisan self when teaching. Yet as literature professor Michael Bérubé pointed out in his plenary address to the MUP's annual meeting, published Academe's November-December 2006 issue, the logic of Horowitz's position brings accusations of liberal bias together with a defense of freedom of speech, so that academic freedom now means freedom from liberal professors and liberal convictions, as if what professors taught were merely viewpoints, not knowledge. "Just as it is a mistake to think that there are two sides to every question," Beruhe says, "it is also a mistake - and a pernicious one, encouraged by I lorowitz . . . and company - to think that there are only two sides to every question."

I agree. But I also worry that that's precisely the position we fall into in defending the l')4() Statement of Principles on . …