It May Be 2008 at Home, But in the Academy It's 1984

Posted: May 11, 2008 12:00 AM
It May Be 2008 at Home, But in the Academy It's 1984

Freedom of speech and inquiry have long been cherished principles in America. They are especially important in the world of academia where they have been viewed as the basis of "academic freedom." For years scholars have advanced the proposition that academic freedom is essential to the advancement of knowledge. Only by challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, they maintained, could one open up new vistas of learning and truth.

In our postmodern world, however, many scholars are learning the hard way that "academic freedom" has become an Orwellian term meaning "academic tyranny." Today, in the academy, one is free only to advance notions that are consonant with the prevailing politically correct orthodoxy. Challenges to that orthodoxy are often met with denials of tenure, refusals to renew contracts, or expulsion.

Nowhere is this more evident than when the notion of Darwinian Evolution is questioned. And nowhere are the limitations of academic freedom more in evidence than in the debate over Intelligent Design. In his documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein chronicles the fate of scholars who dared to proffer the theory of Intelligent Design (ID) as an explanation for the origin of life. Their efforts were rebuffed with Gestapo-like tactics carried out by the politically correct police who brooked no challenges to Charles Darwin's theories. The heterodox were deemed unworthy of membership in the academy and were expelled. Tenure was denied and their contracts were not renewed. Challenges to the existing "academic consensus" are simply not allowed. Thus, a scholar's freedom of inquiry has been transmogrified to freedom from inquiry.

History is replete, however, with great advances made by scholars who challenged the existing "academic consensus." Names like Galileo and Kepler and Einstein come to mind. Progress, after all, often requires thinking outside the box.

Stein's documentary contains interviews with some of the world's leading atheists who are also proponents of Darwin's theories. Of course, they do not acknowledge Darwinism to be merely a theory; to them it is settled science. Yet their notions of the origin of life can hardly be called "scientific." Michael Ruse posits in the film that life on earth evolved on the backs of crystals and Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, hypothesizes that life was planted on earth through space aliens. Men such as these are deemed "leading lights" in the academic community, but Stein's cross-examination makes them appear to be rather "dim bulbs." Intelligent Design seems eminently plausible compared to the ravings of these scientists who appear educated beyond their intelligence.

In Expelled, Ben Stein also interviews Dr. Eugenie C. Scott, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). The NCSE's mission is "defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools," and Dr. Scott is the self-appointed Chief of the Politically Correct Thought Police. Although a putative proponent of academic freedom, she maintains that there is no room for discussion of Intelligent Design in the classroom. She comes across as Darwin's Eva Braun in the film.

Instead of encouraging free inquiry, the scientists interviewed in the documentary mock ID as "pseudo-science" or "religion masquerading as science." These barbs are based on their assumption that the notion that God (or a designer) created life somehow contradicts rational thought. They argue that ID is based on belief—not rational science—but they neglect to mention that their theories on the origin of life are also based on an element of belief. Indeed, the acceptance of any theory of origins necessitates belief (or faith) in that theory.

The NCSE's dogmatic dismissal of alternative theories of our origin in an attempt to preserve "science standards" smacks of the censorship Galileo suffered at the hands of the Church when he defended the theory that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of our solar system. Perhaps most telling is Dr. Scott's claim that the NCSE will not rest until the last brushfires of controversy over evolution are put out. These efforts to extinguish controversy and to mute dissenting voices are antithetical to traditional notions of academic freedom. But that doesn't bother the scholars who are interviewed in the film. In the academy, it's 1984 and, in their world, freedom is tyranny.