Machan's Musings - Federal Judge Dictates Content of Biology Course

removed's picture
Submitted by removed on Wed, 2005-12-21 06:02

Here you have it, the result of government education: Academic freedom is dead—a federal judge decided what Pennsylvania teachers may teach in biology classes.

As MSNBC reports, “The Dover [PA] Area School Board violated the Constitution when it ordered that its biology curriculum must include ‘intelligent design,’ the notion that life on Earth was produced by an unidentified intelligent cause, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled.” No, I do not believe Intelligent Design makes sense—you need to have a brain to design anything intelligently or otherwise, and since Intelligent Design is supposed to have created brains, the idea is viciously circular.

But never mind. It certainly shouldn’t be judges who make the decision what gets taught in class rooms. Sadly, in government educational institutions it has come to this, that a federal judge dictates the content of a biology course. Where is the principle of academic freedom here? Where is the principle of freedom of speech and expression?

Well, nowhere since elementary, high school, and much of higher education is controlled by the government in this free country. And when government controls something, the rules that apply are those that govern government. These rules are what the constitution states and the courts interpret. So, instead of schools governing themselves, having the sovereignty they must enjoy in a free country, they are bound by the laws of government. And since the government is forbidden to advocate religious doctrines, government schools, too, are so forbidden. Never mind what the administrators, teachers, and parents want.

Notice, in a private college the feds cannot barge in with these rules. Sure, many may disagree with what such schools consider proper educational fare but that’s the nature of freedom of education—no one may enforce his or her way of teaching students for all others. So, in a genuinely private school Intelligent or Unintelligent or Haphazard or whatever design could be taught in biology courses and it would then be up to the parents to decide if this is the kind of biology they want their children to be taught.

This is how the free press works: journalism is no less a definite profession and journalists are ethically bound to report news and voice opinions in certain ways, yet in this vital element of a free society no federal judge has any authority to tell journalists what they may or may not present to their customers. It is a matter of free competition, not a matter of government dictation.

The confidence shown in such a system amounts to no less than accepting the customers as having the capacity to make a determination whether they are receiving proper professional services. Some will accept tabloid “news,” or yellow journalism, or highly partisan reporting, or deceptive opinions—and some will go for the genuine stuff.

That’s exactly how it should be in education. But no. Embarrassingly enough, in this so called free country judges can tell teachers how they must teach. Which is scandalous. Yes, it was an early mistake of some American citizens and officials to nationalize education, to give it “free” to children (that is, to provide it at other people’s expense) and to make it even compulsory (that is, coerce kids into the system or something comparable). It should never have happened. Unfortunately, many of America’s early citizens were still quite un-surefooted about the reach freedom should have in their country. They even allowed taxation, a feudal device if there ever was one, to persist for funding legal services.

Sadly, with this contradiction in the country’s devotion to liberty—and of course some even more drastic ones, such as slavery—it is no great wonder that millions of Americans have no clear grasp of what a truly free society amounts to. So they invite more and more government into their lives, so much so that by now George III of England, who was shown the door by the colonists, would find the system quite conducive to his tastes if not actually be offended by its many breaches of human liberty he himself didn’t much like back then.

Not until we separate education and government, as we do the press and church, will there be civility about how our kids are to be taught and will federal judges be kept out of classrooms.

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No disagreement

removed's picture

You are talking about professional ethics and I fully agree. I was talking about law and politics--if some school decides to have ID taught in biology, in a free country there is nothing illegal about that (though one hopes it will go out of business). Let the buyer beware!

Truth in Teaching

AdamReed's picture


In my field, and in science in general, we have objective standards for what is and what is not known, and for what is and what is not true. These standards are quite close to the standard of Objectivist Epistemology, since both are grounded in primacy of existence. To teach religion in a science class, when one was paid to teach science, is a swindle - and as in any other swindle, the defrauded student (or, if the student is younger, the defrauded student's parents) rightly ought to be able to hold the swindler accountable in court.

As for so-called "academic freedom," I do not consider my position as a university teacher a license to teach anything other than what is in fact known and what is in fact true. Of course, teachers of theology, and of its handmaiden, may differ.

As in all things, context matters. But in the context of Biology, it is a good thing that at least one judge understands, as scientists do, that there is a Reality out there.

AF again

removed's picture

Of course neither is synchronized swimming, fencing, or fly fishing in a "capitalist dictionary," whatever that's supposed to mean. AF is well understood in the context of higher education where there is a concern that groups of educators with certain views will gang up on others for not following the party line. So, especially where state higher education has been dominant, members of the profession have carved out this sphere of indpendence from day to day monitoring by administrators or colleagues. It is a pretty good idea, all things ocnsidered, and even apart from statism, the idea that teachers ought to be left alone to design their own courses and only be evaluated on and off, based on their scholarship and teaching, is sound. And in a free society there would be innumerably different schools with different agendas (just as there are publications now). And some could well have ID in their biology classes, just as in some religious colleges and universities they treat the Bible as containing historical data.
I really don't see my views as all that controversial among people who cherish liberty and its application to education.


sjw's picture

Mark: Every sphere of complex human activity requires knowledge-seeking, which requires a respect for the nature of the human faculty. Whether it be pharmaceutical research, software development, or computer processor fabrication--or education--employers depend on independent, thinking employees, and that means respecting their minds and letting them disagree and make mistakes. But only within the range of the reasonable.

There is absolutely no essential difference here between the fields on this count, and no justification for the special nonsense concept of "academic freedom". I would just as much expect a micro-biologist working for private industry who used tarrot cards to be "second guessed" as much as an "educator" who preached that Capitalism isn't practical.

There are *many* things educators working for a rational employer would not be and should not be permitted to do, things irrationalists would classify as an expression of their "academic freedom".

Your use of the word "orthodoxy" in this connection is apt: that's how all subjectivists talk when you mention the concept of objective standards, which is really what this is about. Educators should strictly be rigidly confined and straightjacketed by their employers to meet minimum standards of rationality, and when they make even the slightest little breach (such as whining about their "academic freedom") they should be slapped down fast and hard.

Academic Freedom

Mark Humphrey's picture

Professor Machan makes a valid point.

In a free society, in which individuals select and pay for their own educational needs, privately financed institutions of higher learning would no doubt uphold the standard of academic freedom. The need for such a standard arises from the fact that the higher one ascends on the scale of learning, the more complex and nuanced the ideas one must investigate. For example, the libertarian movement encompasses widely divergent viewpoints about the nature of man, of morality, of knowlege, of government, and so forth. Free market economics includes divergent outlooks about the nature of competition, of money, of monopoly, of capital and interest, and etc. There are even disagreements within the tiny Austrian School of Economics. The more thoroughly one investigates any subject--from physics and chemistry to philosophy and economics--the more one discovers differing outlooks, disagreements, and controversies. Any thinker worth his salt in any field of learning will probably hold some ideas at odds with the orthodoxy. To be free to develope as an intellectual, he must have the autonomy to develope his own ideas. Lacking such autonomy, his value as an intellectual would be nil.

Clearly, in a free society, institutions would employ teachers and thinkers whose basic outlook affirmed the ideals and goals of that organization. But given this basic affinity, to uphold the value of intellectual independence free of harrassment, carping, and second-guessing requires the principle of academic freedom.

Ironically, I had been heartened on reading that the judge threw out intelligent design, simply because I'm tired of schools teaching irrationlism. I hadn't considered the concept of academic freedom raised by Professor Machan until today.

Trader principle

sjw's picture


I don't see any use for the term "academic freedom" in a capitalist vocabulary. In a proper society, the trader principle governs the student/teacher relationship, there is no need for the addition of the term "academic freedom". It's only useful in the context of government-run schools, and there its use is for one purpose: to keep those who pay the bills from influencing what gets taught. I.e., to allow the teacher to function as a full-blown parasite.

Given the sorry state of things, we have to ask: What's worse, judicial intervention, or "academic freedom". And I'd say by far it's the notion that the schools ought to have no accountability at all. In a free society, private schools would automatically be accountable: if the market didn't like what was taught, they'd go out of business. In this poor system the only recourse students have is in fact the courts. This is closer to a free-market situation, since it allows the market to participate.

Yeah, educators won't like it--good! They bear a large responsibility for the mess. They can go try to start a business and see how much easier they have it than businessmen. I think they ought to regulate education to just as high a degree as they regulate business. First, it'd be more fair. Second, it'd demonstrate to the teachers just how bad it is to let the goverment get involved in business--whether it be the education business or any other.

Academic Freedom

removed's picture

AF means the traditional sovereignty of hired educators regarding what they will teach in their classrooms. It applies less in elementary and high schools than colleges and universities but certainly having a judge intrude in any such institutions is wrong.
I remain convinced that this mess comes from government's near-monopoly of schools. In a free society a school's owners or administrators could decide to include the study of ID in biology courses and then they would have to cope with how that plays out among parents/clients, without any government involvement (unless fraud is involved).

School Board, NOT "teachers"

AdamReed's picture


It was the former school board of Dover, Pennsylvania (NOT "teachers") that promulgated compulsory, that is FORCED, indoctrination of students with religious bullshit. Some parents had the guts to object, and the judge ruled in favor of the parents. What compulsory indoctrination of a captive audience in science classes with religious bullshit, has to do with "Academic Freedom" is an absolute mystery to me, which I hope Tibor will explain.

Context matters. Seldom does *anything* have only one cause.

"Academic freedom"

sjw's picture

Let's call "academic freedom" what it really is: The "freedom" for teachers to brainwash my kids with any sort of nonsense they feel like, at my forcibly extracted expense.

Private schools don't have "academic freedom". If I owned a private school and some teacher was teaching nonsense, I'd rightly put a stop to it, and if he whined: "But you're stifling my academic freedom", I'd toss the leech out on his fat academic ass and tell him: "There, now you're free, go teach anything you want."

I disagree

sjw's picture

Tibor: I disagree with what you're taking from this ruling. I'm sure we'd both agree that the fundamental issue is that schools shouldn't be government owned. But given that they are:

It sounds like you'd just have the government-hired teachers dictate what the curriculum should be, without any possible recourse to the courts. Tell me how it's better to have an absolute dictator deciding curriculum than it is to be able to sue the school when they teach nonsense. And that's what I think your concept of "academic freedom" is: Absolute dicatorship. You want the teachers to have even more dictatorial control than they already do.

I think the ruling is a good one in context. The bad thing is that no one in the mainstream media is stating the essential problem here: No one should be forced to pay for someone else's education, and the government should not be in the education business.

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