For those who don’t know, there has been an on-going spat concerning a class taught by physics professor Eric Hedin at Ball State University. Hedin teaches a class entitled “Boundaries of Science” whose syllabus reveals that the class focuses on discussing the relationship between science and religion. As someone whose academic pursuits are related to studying the relationship between science and religion, this debacle has been on my radar screen for a while. Several groups have weighed in — perhaps most prominently Jerry Coyne (who is against the class) and the Discovery Institute (who say that they support the class in the name of “academic freedom”) — with a variety of viewpoints. Recently, physicist Karl Giberson has weighed in on the issue on his blog. In this post, I’d like to say a bit about Giberson’s response.
Giberson is a Christian commentator on the evolution/Creationism dispute who encourages his fellow Christians to accept Darwinian evolution. He works for the pro-evolution evangelical think tank the Biologos Foundation and I’ve been following his work in the blogosphere for a while.
In his article, Giberson calls Coyne’s view on the issue “hyperbolic” (I don’t think they are) and goes on to state (emphasis mine):
The Hedin uproar interests me because I teach similar courses — at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass. — that explore the boundaries of science, the nature of scientific truth and the religious implications of science…
Teaching courses on controversial subjects when you have a public — or even private — position on the controversy is a balancing act. Teachers, especially professors, are authority figures with powers of persuasion that should not be used to move students to positions that do not represent the mainstream thinking on the topic…
…I assign equal reading from theists and atheists and spend roughly half the time discussing the ideas of the atheists. My goal — and I think I succeed — is to help students think through important issues that may inform their own spiritual journeys, regardless of the direction they are traveling. And as we know, college students do a lot of traveling…
Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.
But is any of this a big deal? Should Ball State University terminate a young assistant professor teaching a general education course, which most faculty avoid like the plague, outside his field because, on first offering, it was ideologically slanted? I wonder how those us living in the ivory towers of academia would fare if our most challenging interdisciplinary syllabi constructed early in our careers became topics of national conversation?
…my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.
I feel largely sympathetic to much of what Giberson stated. I’m a graduate student whose research focuses on the historical and philosophical relationship between science and religion. Despite having publicly accessible views on that relationship, I look forward to teaching courses on this topic but worry that my views may get in the way of pedagogy (what happens when students google me?). Unlike Giberson, I’m an atheist, but I think can I can imagine what it would be like to teach courses of this kind when one’s views are so publicly accessible. I have yet to teach a class on this, but would very much like to do so in the future (especially since it’s my research area!). And I think that Giberson has much the right idea; spending half of his course on thinkers he is adamantly opposed to, and working hard to present their ideas as strongly as you present your own, can work to create a classwork environment where academic exploration is encouraged. While I have not taught classes on the topic, I have done guest lectures for various groups and was happy to hear from my colleagues (who sat in) that I was as neutral as I was.
Giberson is correct that Helin’s syllabus lacks the full range of possible views that one might have on the science/religion relationship. And he’s right that Hedin is abusing his power as a professor. As others have pointed out, Hedin’s teaching evaluations on RateMyProfessor.com provide further evidence that he seems to be abusing his power as professor:
“Extremely nice guy and an easy class. However, the class had an extremely Christian bias and he does not believe in evolution. Many of his views do not quite jive with those of mainstream science.”
“Constantly talks religion, as an atheist, I was slightly concerned my science teacher is a devout christian.”
“The one thing I didn’t like was his constant bringing religion into class.”
When I took Philosophy of Religion, professor Ted Parent commented to the class that, if he did his job well that semester, students in the class will be guessing right up until the last day what his personal views are. Having taken other religion courses, I’ve seen other ways that professors try to avoid appearing biased; my Sociology of Religion professor stated his views the first day of class (he was an agnostic) and apologized if he ever appeared biased. He also encouraged students to relate the material to their own backgrounds and their own personal views. I sat in on a class that looked at the history of science and religion, taught by Matthew Goodrum, and he avoided telling the class his personal views the entire semester. He was so good at appearing neutral that his views were never relevant to the course material. His own views were simply not relevant to the course material. These approaches appear to me to be legitimate ways of reassuring students that the material will not be present in a biased manner; either make an effort to appear so neutral that your students have no idea what your views are or air them on the first day of class and let the students know that you want to cooperate with them to leave those views outside the door of the classroom.
Hedin’s class, in its syllabus and in his teaching evaluations, seems to be unapologetically biased towards Christian theism.
Giberson’s remark that this isn’t really a big deal seems to miss-the-mark. The problem is two-fold: 1. the kind of abuse of one’s power that can be identified in Hedin’s teaching evaluations and syllabus and 2. the kind of anti-atheist prejudice that is involved here. Despite recognizing Hedin’s abuse of power, Giberson asks that outsiders leave the matter to the university. Nonetheless, (2) especially concerns me because we already live in a country where atheists are regularly demonized; it doesn’t help to have a college professor abuse his power to erase the positions which atheists are voicing. If there were a class on “Gender Theory”, and it was taught by a white, heterosexual, cis male, and the syllabus solely contained works written by so-called “Men’s Rights Activists”, we would have reason to be concerned. We would have even more reason to be concerned if the professor’s teaching evaluations and other anecdotal evidence revealed that the teacher was making misogynistic comments in class. Such a situation would strike many of us as cause for concern. Imagine how inadequate it would appear if the response from MRA activists was to defend such a professor in the name of “academic freedom”.
It’s not that such a class should avoid discussing MRA thought; as much as I detest it and find it morally abhorrent, such views appear in the discussion on gender issues and a class focusing on such issues could conceivably do students a disservice if such a discussion were avoided. Similarly, while I find it intellectually abhorrent, Creationism is relevant to the discussion of science and religion. That does not mean that it should be the primary focus of the course.
This course is a violation of student rights and openly presents inaccurate information. If Ball State does not want to do anything about this situation, then students have every right to seek outside influence. It isn’t fair that students should be subjected to this sort of thing and it isn’t right for a professor to teach whatever he pleases under the guise of “academic freedom”.