A Fireable Offence of a Tenured Prof

How do you feel about the following statement:

Science is the litmus test on the validity of the educational enterprise. If a school teaches real science, it’s a pretty safe bet that all other departments are sound. If it teaches bogus science, everything else is suspect…. I want a real college, not one that rejects facts, knowledge, and understanding because they conflict with a narrow religious belief. Any college that lets theology trump fact is not a college; it is an institution of indoctrination. It teaches lies. Colleges do not teach lies. Period.

Does it shock you? Appall you? Mildly surprise you? Or not really?

Would it, however, shock you to know that this statement got a tenured professor, an eminent educator with a handful of teaching awards, fired from the college where he had taught for 35 years?  Inside Higher Ed reports that Erskine College fired Professor Crenshaw for expressing these ideas in spite of the fact that he has tenure. Religious fanatics who called for the professor’s dismissal referred to his teaching as “the triumph of anti-Christ” and “secular brain-dribble.

Well, at least the secular folks have brains. The fanatics seem to recognize that they are terrified all this brain-power might dribble on them and contaminate their empty heads with – oh, horror! – knowledge.

Shame on you, Erskine College. You have traveled the path from being an educational institution into becoming a laughing stock of every educated, reasonable person in the country. You have to decide whether you want to run an indoctrination school for religious fanatics or an actual college where people receive education. Nobody will take you seriously if you don’t mend you ways and invite Professor Crenshaw back with an apology.

I know that people will now tell me, “Well what do you expect from a Presbyterian college?” Actually, what I expect is what an alumna of this college described as its past:

What a shame the Erskine of old no longer exists. It mattered not what faith or non-faith one practiced during my years there. It was a time to grow and bond with close friends I still have until this day – time of discovery – finding out who I was – who I wanted to be.

I would not be the confident woman I am today if it were not for Erskine and professors who made me learn to think – such as Dr. Crenshaw. (And yes, I would never deign to use his first name. He deserves more respect than that).

Thank you for the difference you have made in my life, Dr. Crenshaw. Keep writing on this board. Eventually someone will listen.

I agree with Ms. Janie Bryan Simpson, what a shame!

21 thoughts on “A Fireable Offence of a Tenured Prof”

  1. And you should see the tenure battles at science departments at conservative Christian universities. Some won’t hire anybody who believes in evolution. But others that are supposedly “serious” universities (Baylor, BYU) always make the news for this things. I think it was at Baylor a few years ago that a creationist biologist was denied tenure, and all hell broke loose. Good for the guys working in that department, but it can’t be easy.

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    1. The whole question of “believing in evolution” just bugs me to no end. It isn’t a matter of belief or personal opinion.

      And how can you be a “creationist biologist”? That’s an oxymoron if I ever heard one.

      But what can we expect when a presidential candidate defends his anti-global warming views by adducing the example of Galileo? That’s just so bizarre I have no words for it.

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      1. “The whole question of “believing in evolution” just bugs me to no end. It isn’t a matter of belief or personal opinion.”

        Yes, precisely. As a subaltern subject I’d be the first to insist that a lot of ‘facts’ — or ideas once indisputably accepted as facts, like the superiority of the white race or the smaller brains of African slaves — are mediated by prejudices, hierarchies of power, and so on. But there are other ideas which, so far anyway, have been labelled facts because they’ve been consistent through decades and batteries of testing. The theory of evolution the most viable theory connecting the available evidence. It might become richer in data and nuances, and some kinks may be ironed out in the future, like some have in the past, but I simply cannot understand how it could be an article of faith.

        And I don’t mean this as an expression of exasperation. I genuinely do not understand how, in the face of all the tested and retested evidence, people can still scratch their heads and say, “Um, I’m really not sure if I’m allowed to believe in this”.

        The other thing that bothers me — although some might say this is the downside of living in a democracy — that people whose ideas *on empirically (dis)provable issues* are clearly wrong must be treated with the same importance as those whose ideas are right. To ridicule them or at the very least tell them to sod off is harsh or undemocratic. I don’t understand this at all. Evolution is not a point-of-view thing. The ministry of education should not allow this to be taught *as a scientific fact* (it can certainly be taught in religious classes). Why on earth is the premise of this debate still allowed to exist?

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        1. People scratch their heads and don’t ‘get’ evolution for a couple of reasons:
          1) Evolution takes enormous amounts of time to occur. Normal people don’t grasp millions of years very well. It’s just beyond their faculty to comprehend.
          2) Related to #1 – evolution is often taught (and discussed) something that happened (past tense) rather than something that is happening. It leaves the (mistaken) impression that evolution is over – and when you point out that evolution is an ongoing process, they (opponents) wonder why we can’t “see” the transitions.
          3) It’s impossible to duplicate – and again, very difficult for normal people to reconcile the randomness of environment and mutation to come together so successfully.

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          1. It’s precisely for the reasons you listed that I don’t get it. I just don’t. i read books, tried to educate myself, but it ain’t happening. But I’m honest enough to recognize that I don’t get it because of my intellectual limitations. I’m not going around saying, “Well, if I can’t get it, it can’t possibly be true.”

            I also don’t get how a computer works and why there is light coming from a light bulb. But I accept their objective existence and the fact that there are many people who know how these things work.

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          2. @Patrick: “evolution is often taught (and discussed) something that happened (past tense) rather than something that is happening.”

            This is interesting. At school, our biology teacher started the chapter on evolution with, “And now we’re going learn about a wonderful magical thing that goes on all around us… but so quietly we don’t even notice!” Rhetorical purists will probably have her head for using the ‘word’ magic in a scientific context, but we were in Class III I think — 7 or 8 year olds — and it really caught our attention. If people find they’re unable to ‘get’ evolution because it happens very very slowly, and over enormous stretches of time — and I should add I don’t find this a good enough reason to reject a proven scientific theory; people, after all, seem to have no trouble believing in WMDs without a personal demonstration — I’d suggest they were not introduced to it properly.

            Which brings us back to pedagogic bias and failure.

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        2. “The other thing that bothers me — although some might say this is the downside of living in a democracy — that people whose ideas *on empirically (dis)provable issues* are clearly wrong must be treated with the same importance as those whose ideas are right.”

          -I know!! This is, once again, a badly digested idea of tolerance taken way too far. Why am I supposed to be tolerant of truly barbaric prejudices of the ignorant? I’m a college prof. My job is to eradicate ignorance. Being tolerant of it really makes no sense.

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  2. I must say I kinda agree with this guy’s statement. But of course I am untenured, so I’d just shut up. 🙂

    As for evolution, many of my friends are from Islamic Republics and even there they believe in evolution, and not any of “the world was created by God” kind of nonsense. It’s absurd that this is a matter of any debate in a country like the U.S.

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    1. I can honestly say that I don’t understand evolution. It’s beyond my brain’s capacities. But I accept that people who have studied it for a very long time know what they are talking about. Hell, I don’t understand sine and cosine either. It doesn’t make me say I don’t believe in them, though. 🙂

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  3. I completely disagree with him on whether theology is a respectable subject to teach at a college or university, but I disagree even more with the people who fired him for what he said. He offered a provocative statement that I consider defensible (i.e. I think the argument can be defended on reasonable grounds, even if I think that the counter-arguments are stronger), and the statement was on an academic matter. If that is a firing offense, we’re screwed.

    As to creationists in science departments, I suspect that there are more than some of you might think. Some of them are, yes, at religious schools. (The only open creationist whom I know personally is at a religious school, albeit not in biology.) I suspect that there are a handful crawling around in non-religious schools, especially in the physical sciences and engineering. There have been studies on the prevalence of religious fundamentalism in engineering, and it’s not that engineering creates fundamentalism, but rather engineering is less threatening to fundamentalism (you focus on building stuff, not on the origins of the natural world) so fundamentalists with math and science talent are more likely to wind up there. As to physical sciences, we physical scientists all think that we’re smarter than biologists, so if you’re already inclined to disbelieve evolution it’s easy to assure yourself that those biologists couldn’t possibly know what they’re talking about.

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    1. He’s a college prof. He’s job is to have opinions, generate ideas and argue them. You’re right, if we start getting fired for that, we are all deeply screwed. And not just the profs. The society at large.

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    2. I believe (correct me if I’m wrong) what he said was that theology was being taught in a science department. That is indefensible. Theology is an academic field just like any other, and I have no problem with theology being taught in a university. And if you go to a religious college, well, it obviously is going to be a part of the curriculum (something I tell my students when they complain they have to take 9 credit hours of mandatory theology classes). But it should be taught in the theology department, not in the biology department.

      On a related note, I wonder what the acceptance rate for graduate programs in the science or medical school is of students graduating from Bob Jones University or Liberty University (open evangelical schools). It would be interesting to find out.

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  4. Funny, I was just reading this article about two minutes ago and wondering if you would blog on it…

    (first, my devil’s advocate bit:) The initial statement, about science being the litmus, is something I don’t find shocking or bizarre at all, although I would love to debate it a bit. “Science,” as Crenshaw describes it, is all about what has been proven and what can be proved, and tends to dismiss anything that has not yet been proven as completely off-the-table. Which is fine, if one admits that’s what one is doing, but a lot of science treats the as-yet-unproven as definitely untrue. Which is, I guess, my long way of saying that defining anything not scientifically acceptable as “lies” is a bit of a stretch, in my opinion. There is always the darkened corner, the shadow that remains to need light shone upon it to see what’s in there, and it frustrates hell out of me when empirical types deny that there’s a WHOLE lot we have at best insufficient data about, and at most not a frigging clue.

    Then the flp-side of the argument–when you leave science and go into other fields, the line between “lies” and “truth” becomes even more vague: it reminds me of the line from Wicked: “Elphaba, where I come from we believe all sort of things that aren’t true. We call it history.” An awful lot of what we learn, whatever perspective we come from, is going to be slanted with whatever bias we bring to the table, and scientists are no less biased than anyone else, when you come down to it. (Remember the circumcision brouhaha? Case in point. They all think they are being absolutely rational. I read what they say and go, huunnnngggh?) At some point one has to step from “what does the science say” into “what implications does this have for X Y and Z,” and that’s where the hairy stuff comes in. (horns off.)

    ALL THAT SAID: I don’t see “God made the world in seven days encompassing 24 hours each and the fossils were put out there to test our faith” as something that will ever, EVER be proven.:-) And I believe if we actually made a point of teaching students to think independently, none of this would be an issue because they would be doing that and coming to their own intelligent conclusions. Which is part of why this is so scary: in the article you linked to it literally sounds like the school is AGAINST teaching students to think for themselves, and in favor of simply indoctrinating them with their own version of “truth.” (Any one-sided truth, IMO, is probably not entirely true.)

    AND–that he could and would, despite tenure, be fired for something like this is absolutely insane and kind of terrifying. Jokes about “thought police” are getting less and less funny with every article like this I read.

    –J
    ps I love the student who “would not address him by his first name”–I’m the same way, I have always addressed my professors with their titles of respect until invited to do otherwise. Awesome.

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  5. Having made a spirited defence of evolution in the classroom, I must now say that I find this Crenshaw chap’s premise about accurate science and pedagogic validity absurd. An institution might have a sterling scientific or technical faculty and yet be steeped in a deeply prejudiced environment, churning out bigoted or prejudiced students who are fantastically well-trained in the rational ‘hard’ sciences.

    For a sample of this population, I point you to Chris Lee’s latest post on Ars Technica and my own post on the social ignorance of most Indian engineers: http://priyankanandy.com/2011/09/07/engineers-reality/

    So let us by all means protest against the fascism that private institutions practise in the name of ‘ideology’, but let us not resort to logically indefensible premises ourselves to do it.

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    1. Rimi, just out of curiosity…do you think his absurdity is because he’s as ideologically off the deep end as the people who fired him, only in the other direction? Or because he feels the need to push harder to balance the craziness over there to his right?

      I can’t quite tell, myself…he kind of seems like a jerk, but 35 years in that environment and I’d probably be sort of an asshole too. 🙂

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      1. If by “off the deep end…. in the other direction” you mean he’s fetishising science in a very obsessive, unscientific manner, then yes, that is half of what I mean. The other half is that he is the implication that teaching science well is a prerequisite for — or a guarantee of — teaching the arts/social sciences well. This is rubbish. There is no such connection at all. He might, at most, argue that a college that bans empirically validated scientific principles from their curriculum probably has a very high chance of messing about ideologically with their other curricula as well. But even then, the only connection between teaching both science and social science/humanities badly would be interference from idiotic fanatics, not his ‘these two are connected independent of other factors’ hypothesis.

        And yes, I don’t find him a particularly appealing specimen, but, as your very rightly pointed out, working with the sort of people he has been working with — and no doubt battling it every day of the way — rationality and politeness would probably have driven him mad.

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      2. Oh no. I am tired and nearly nodding off, so I read your question as, “…do you think it is absurd because he’s…”. In other words, I thought you were asking me if I thought his own behaviour was absurd [this was stupid of me — why would you be asking this when I clearly say I think he’s being absurd?] and if it was, why did I think it was absurd.

        Terribly sorry, J, and yes, I agree with you. Living with radical people one initially only differs mildly with can actually make people into massive, obnoxious fanatics themselves. Probably a defence mechanism and an attempt to keep his sanity, right?

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  6. J. :

    Funny, I was just reading this article about two minutes ago and wondering if you would blog on it…

    Welcome to Clarissa’s Blog. The place where we read your thoughts and anticipate your every wish. . .

    🙂

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