Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Fiat Lux, Indeed

by Sara

I've been saying for a long while now that the power to end the Intelligent Design fiasco, firmly and finally and with but a single word, rests in the manicured hands of the chancellors of America's top universities. The message is short and simple: "Teach what you like, it’s all fine with us. But if you put ID in your science courses, we will not accept those courses as adequate for admission to our campus."

Making this kind of public statement would be one small step for a university chancellor; and one giant leap for American science education. Somebody, somewhere, needs to set a firm standard. If our universities -- which bear responsibility for training our professional scientists, and maintain the labs and faculties responsible for much of our best research -- won't stand up and draw that line, then we really are well and truly lost.

It turns out that we may be in better hands than I'd hoped. It turns out, in fact, that one of my own alma maters quietly drew that line in the sand way back in 2005, and has been fighting a long, slow legal battle ever since as a result. In a story that seems to have gotten almost no attention outside the local area, the University of California -- the nation's largest university system (motto: Fiat Lux, or "let there be light") -- has been engaged in a legal battle with Calvary Chapel Christian School over the question of what is an acceptable science education, and what rights a university has when it comes to drawing those lines.

The battle started back in late 2005, when UC reviewed Calvary's courses and decided that several of them -- including "Special Providence: Christianity and the American Republic and "Christianity's Influence on America," both history courses; "Christianity and Morality in American Literature," an English course; and a biology class -- did not meet their curriculum standards, and would not be counted toward the admission requirements when Calvary students apply to UC.

Calvary does offer other classes that would fulfill the requirements; and its students also have the option of taking the SAT II to gain admissions credit in these areas instead. In past years, Calvary students have been admitted to UC at a slightly-higher-than-average rate, which makes discrimination much harder to claim.

According to the various news stories, the reasons for UC's rejection were fairly specific. The San Francisco Chronicle's account, published when the first suits were filed in December 2005, notes:
In turning down the English course, Sue Wilbur, the director of UC undergraduate admissions, checked two categories as "inadequate" on a standard form: "Lacking necessary course information," and "Insufficient academic/theoritical [sic] content." She added a note that said: "Unfortunately, this course, while it has an interesting reading list, does not offer a nonbiased approach to the subject matter." And she also commented that "the textbook is not appropriate." During the interview, [UC counsel Christopher] Patti said the textbook was an anthology and that UC demands some full texts be read.
UC's own fact sheet on the matter explains their specific concerns about the biology text more explicitly:
Some of the courses rejected by UC used certain textbooks published by Bob Jones University Press and A Beka Books as primary instructional materials. Although UC has approved courses that use other textbooks from these publishers, these books were reviewed by faculty who concluded they did not meet UC’s guidelines for primary textbooks. Had the courses at issue used these textbooks as supplementary, rather than primary, texts, it is likely they would have been approved.

The question the University must confront in reviewing these texts is not whether they have religious content, but whether they provide a comprehensive view of the relevant subject matter, reflecting knowledge generally accepted in the scientific and educational communities and with which a student at the university level should be conversant. In the books in question, the publishers themselves acknowledge that the primary goal is to teach religious doctrine rather than the scholarship that is generally accepted in the relevant fields of study. For example, the introduction to the primary textbook for the science courses in question states clearly that it teaches students that their conclusions must conform to the Bible, and that scientific material and methods are secondary:

“The people who have prepared this book have tried consistently to put the Word of God first and science second. To the best of the author’s knowledge, the conclusions drawn from observable facts that are presented in this book agree with the Scriptures. If a mistake has been made (which is probable since this book was prepared by humans) and at any point God's Word is not put first, the author apologizes.” (Source: Biology for Christian Schools, 2nd Edition / Bob Jones University Press, p. vii.)

The University has declined to approve courses that use as their primary source the books named in the case, not because they have religious content, but because they fail to meet the University’s standards for effectively teaching the required subject matter. Again, the University does not approve whether the school can teach the course or use the text, but whether students who take the course will have it counted as having met a college preparatory requirement at UC. (All italics theirs.)
Calvary had a choice here. They could choose other textbooks. Or they could turn this into a big church/state legal fight. Guess which option they picked.

In August of 2005, the Association of Christian Schools International, Calvary Christian Schools, and a group of Calvary parents and students sued UC in federal court for religious bias. The suit deplored "government officials…dictating and censoring the viewpoints that may and may not be taught in private schools…(they) have rejected textbooks and courses based on a viewpoint of religious faith." Furthermore, rejecting the courses "violate(s) the freedom of speech of Christian schools, students, and teachers."

This is, of course, a classic example of fundamentalist hypocrisy; you can hear that tell-tale petulant whine tune up whenever their paranoia engines start redlining. It's perfectly OK for them to put their kids in history classes (like the ones described by Jeffrey Sharlet in this excellent piece in last month's Harper's) that teach them that they were born (again) to be the God-ordained leaders of America, and the rest of us are doomed to serve under their rule. It's only right and natural that they'd build a whole separate network of private schools so their precious children will never have to interact with our wretched little sinners. It's downright reasonable of them to send their kids to Jesus camp, and let them play video games in which they can rehearse the coming massacre of non-believers. Separatism is all fine and good -- as long as it serves to keep the Christianist Kingdom pure, free from the taint of the wicked things (and people) of this world.

But when the world strikes back, making it clear that it is determined to maintain its own standards -- standards that religious fanatics are forthrightly unwilling to meet, even though everybody else manages to -- well then, the case is clear: they're being discriminated against. For people who like to make fun of "political correctness," they're sure playing the victim-politics card for all it's worth.

According to the Chronicle, Calvary's legal team is being led by Wendell Bell, a protégé of Robert Bork, who 30 years ago devised the legal strategy that would use the courts to compel public schools to teach creationism. He's already lost one case, Edwards v. Aguillard, before the Supreme Court, and claims he's now discouraging people from bringing ID cases. Even so, he insists that his clients have every right to teach their subjects from a Christian perspective. In one of their filings, the Calvary lawyers wrote: "UC would not dare to claim there was no constitutional violation if it rejected courses because of their African American, or Latino heritage, or feminist or environmentalist perspective." And on its Web site, the group says, "It's wrong to discriminate against Christians, essentially foreclosing opportunities at State Universities." (Here's a chilling thought: whoever wrote that sentence is probably correcting kids' punctuation papers, too.)

When it comes to the history and English courses, they're absolutely right. We all look at language and history through the filters of culture. The subjects lend themselves to multiple interpretations, depending on your perspective. Understanding this, and being exposed to the full range of perspectives in these fields -- including religious ones -- is an essential part of secondary and undergraduate education.

But nobody, save the Christian schools, teaches science or math that way. There is no African-American or Latino or feminist or Jewish or Russian science (Hitler and Stalin notwithstanding). There's just a method, and a group of techniques, and the skill-building and knowledge base required to use them well. Scientists do their best -- with varying degrees of success -- to uncover their cultural biases and move beyond them. The greatest ones regard bias as a dangerous source of error: it can blind you, and lead you to draw the wrong conclusions from the observed facts. For that reason, any textbook that starts off by telling you to believe a 2,000-year-old religious scripture over your own lying eyes is not teaching science. It's putting students on the path to a Christian version of Lysenkoism.

Both sides are clear that the stakes are high: Do universities have a right to set fair, consistent boundaries on what courses they consider acceptable preparation for their programs? Do they have the right to say that one school, class, book, or teacher does a better job of preparing students than another? (And if it turns out they don't, does this also mean that Yale will automatically have to grant transfer credit from any course in the Bob Jones University catalog?) Or does setting high reality-based standards and firm academic boundaries inherently violate the civil rights of religious True Believers?

The ASCI and Calvary lawyers have framed this as outright religious discrimination, and an abridgement of freedom of speech. According to them, UC is reaching its Orwellian hand into their classrooms and dictating what they can and can't teach. They can't seem to distinguish the difference between someone saying, "We have standards, and this book or course doesn't meet them," (according to UC, between 10 and 15% of all high school courses they vet fail to make the grade; yet Calvary offers 43 other courses that UC accepts without issue), and outright religious discrimination.

UC is not telling them what to teach. They are still free to choose whatever curriculum they deem appropriate to a Christian education. What they're asking for is freedom from facing the consequences of those choices. I can't spend a semester reading whatever books I choose, and then accuse the university of discrimination when they flunk me for not knowing what's in the syllabus. But that's pretty much what Calvary is trying to do.

The lawsuit has already been in process for 18 months, and has survived preliminary hearings. It looks as though it will be coming to trial sometime this year. If UC wins (and their case looks good), it may set a powerful precedent that will allow other universities to take a stand for real science in the future. If they lose, all bets are off: no university anywhere will be allowed to set or maintain admissions standards. Such a ruling could undermine the foundations of merit-based secular education as we've known it -- which may, in the end, be exactly what the plaintiffs are looking for.

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