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FIRST-PERSON: Education’s missing link

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Academic freedom, academic freedom, wherefor art thou academic freedom? Judging from the treatment received by those who refuse to embrace the exalted theory of evolution, it is missing in action in many publicly funded educational institutions throughout America.

Two years ago I became aware of a biology professor at an Oregon community college who shared with students what were, in his view, weak links in the theory of evolution. He taught the theory’s tenets, but he made it clear that he did not swallow them hook, line and sinker. Was this free-thinking professor defended on the grounds of academic freedom? No, he was fired.

Recently a professor of biology at Texas Tech University has made headlines because he refuses to write recommendations for any student who does not believe in evolution. Understanding and articulating the theory of evolution is not enough for Dr. Michael Dini. No, a student must declare that he or she embraces the theory of evolution as fact. There could well be more academic freedom in Iraq than in Prof. Dini’s classroom.

Private institutions have every right to set whatever academic parameters they wish, academic freedom notwithstanding. A particular set standard — or lack thereof — could result in a school losing its accreditation. It is up to the school to decide if the loss of accreditation is a price worth paying. That being said, if Dr. Dini taught in a private setting he could have any policy said institution would tolerate. However, he has chosen to ply his trade at a school supported by tax money. If academic freedom is to be found anywhere, it should be in a government-supported school.

Almost 78 years ago John Scopes did battle with the state of Tennessee over the issue of academic freedom. In 1925 the Volunteer State adopted the Butler Act, which made it illegal for a teacher in any school supported by state funds “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation of man in the Bible, and to teach instead that man descended from a lower order of animals.”

Scopes, buoyed by the knowledge that the American Civil Liberties Union vowed to defend any teacher charged with violating the Butler Act, taught a lesson on evolutionary theory to his Rhea County High School science class. In short order, Scopes was arrested and indicted by a grand jury. The summer of 1925 found the eyes of America trained on Dayton, Tenn., and what has become known as the “Monkey Trial.”

The ACLU maintained that no matter what the dominant community view happened to be, students should not be denied pertinent information on any subject. Famed lawyer Clarence Darrow led the charge for the defense. His case was not as much about evolution as it was the issue of limiting academic inquiry on the basis of religious belief.

While Darrow was unsuccessful in swaying the jury to acquit Scopes, he secured a victory for the cause of academic freedom. In the book “Great American Trials,” Edward Knappman writes, “In a narrow sense, Scopes and the evolutionists lost the battle. But it was soon apparent that they had won the war.”

“No attempt was made to enforce the Butler Act again, although it was not repealed until 1967. Within a few years, efforts to enforce similar laws in other states were abandoned. The Supreme Court put the issue to rest in 1968, when it held a similar statute in Arkansas unconstitutional because it violated the separation of church and state….” Knappman recounts.

The ACLU defended John Scopes on the ground that public schools should not allow religious belief to limit academic inquiry. Seven decades later, all that has changed is that a different theory now dominates the classroom. Only one view is tolerated in many state-supported institutions, that of Darwinian evolution. Interestingly enough, the ACLU is strangely silent.

One professor merely mentions that evolutionary theory might be flawed and is fired. Another mandates that students must believe the same theory and is defended. It seems that public education is suffering from a missing link. Wherefor art thou academic freedom?
Boggs is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs