March 24, 2009

Degrading Higher Education in Oklahoma

Dawkins at the University of Texas at Austin.Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I have always liked about academia, first as a student and now as a faculty member, has been the role of the university in promoting critical thinking. We teach that all dogmas are to be questioned, and we strive to provide students with the tools for doing so (e.g., philosophy, science, etc.). Traditionally, the idea of the university has also emphasized the role of free discourse. We try to expose students to controversial ideas with the goal of shaking up their worldviews a bit. We do this not to convince them to believe as we do (for we are a diverse bunch too) but to help them realize that reliance on authority will only take them so far. In the ideal case, the student is able to set aside the values of his or her parents and church long enough to develop his or her own values.

As you might guess, it pains me to see the Oklahoma legislature pressuring the University of Oklahoma to cancel a scheduled visit by eminent scholar Richard Dawkins. In fact, Oklahoma Rep. Todd Thomsen has introduced a resolution asking the university to uninvite Dawkins because his views "are not shared [by] a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma."

I see that as part of the point of bringing him to campus in the first place. Education is not about keeping people where they are comfortable and reinforcing what they already believe. It is about exposing people to new ideas, hopefully some of which will be uncomfortable.

At this point, Christians are likely objecting that universities should be bringing Ken Ham and Ann Coulter to campus too. Surely they are controversial figures that would spark dialogue too. Perhaps, but one must first make the case that these individuals are qualified to address whatever they are addressing. You see, the whole "teach the controversy" approach is fine as long as there actually is a controversy and as long as the various points of view are credible. After all, we do want students to learn something.

Of course, there is also the matter of politicians interfering with what happens at the university. It certainly does not seem consistent with academic freedom, free speech, or the sort of education to which most universities aspire.

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