The Meaning of a University Education (Musings after the BYU Thread) 16 June 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Mormonism/LDS Church, Philosophy & Social Theory.
A friend introduced me to a fantastic web site this morning called Butterlies and Wheels. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom, the authors/editors of the web publication (philosopher of science and a social scientist, respectively) seek to counter pseudoscience, politically and ideologically motivated research, and what they call “epistemological relativism” (which is fancy philosopher-speak for some of the more problematic positions of postmodernism).The stie’s response to Nielsen’s dismissal fascinated me, as it focuses more on the issues that I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to express about the learning environment at BYU, rather than on Nielsen’s dismissal itself. Benson and Stangroom write a detailed analysis of BYU’s policies on academic freedom and the university’s practices in “Truth and Consequences at Brigham Young.”All of us here would agree that Nielsen’s dismissal is not a surprise and that BYU has the legal right to dismiss an adjunct professor (don’t get me started on the part-time academic proletariat; see Trevor Dodge’s arguments for a good intro). Many of us would disagree about whether or not the legal right to dismiss a professor means that BYU morally should have dismissed him.The problem that I have, which has been surfacing over in the “Fired” thread is a larger issue with the quality and meaning of University education in general, and BYU, as a particularly rigid university, highlights the problems and conflicts within universities that damper or outright shut down the search for truth, which should be the hallmark of higher education.Realistically, I know that in the society we live in, most (if not all) students are mostly concerned about their futures. They live in a world where college graduates make more the 25% more than non-college graduates. And a college degree is for the most part an entrée into the Professional Managerial Class (i.e., the dominant cultural class, but not the ruling class) of the United States. These practical concerns are understandable, especially given that the PMC is the only non-rich segment of the American population to have experienced an increase in their standard of living since 1973 The PMC make up about 15% of the population, with combined household incomes of between 80K and 140K per annum; households over 150K/year, the “wealthy” classes, are about 5% of the population. All this to say I understand my students’ social and economic pragmatism.However, I’m not ready yet to give up my idealism that a University Education can actually mean something more, a place where students come to explore their world, try on new ideas, examine human diversity, etc. And i believe that so far in human history, even with all its limitations and social problems, the University is the best place for the production of knowledge.Benson and Stangroom point out that conducting solid research is completely possible while holding religious beliefs. The problem is how a religious university enacts the balance they have between their religious and academic missions. Interestingly, BYU divides academic freedom into two parts, the “individual” and the “institutional.” This is done, basically, in order to justify, within the rules of the university, the dismissal of professors for reasons beyond the value or their scholarship or the quality of their teaching. To wit, professors may not contradict or question LDS doctrine, they may not deride or attack the church, and they may not violate the “honor code.” B&S explain:
It’s obvious that such a policy is bound to result in problems. Scholars working in the humanities or the social sciences are very likely to be inquiring into subjects that could bring them into conflict with the specified limitations on academic freedom. This is especially the case since the limitations are vague enough so that what the BYU authorities consider to be a violation might vary over time, and from case to case, and that faculty might not be clear anyway that particular views or activities are unacceptable.
In other words, BYU is following its own policy quite clearly and has set it up to maintain the kind of tightly controlled intellectual environment they desire. B&S point out that there is no evidence that the faculty in general are unhappy, as most of them are believing Mormons with temple recommends, and so choose to be in that environment.My concern, however, is more global. What happens to the quality of education when this kind of policy is enacted on its faculty? Furthermore, what is the quality of the education on a campus where 95% of the faculty are believing, temple-recommend holding members who agree with the policy and therefore do or say nothing that may be challenging to the world views of their students? Isn’t that the very nature of a university education? To have our foundations laid bare and examined?To be fair, that did happen to me as a student at BYU, but not necessarily because of the classroom (although I did have some excellent teachers at BYU, across disciplines). It happened to me because my personal experiences of god and my sexuality were in such sharp contrast to my experience of mormonism at BYU. But then again, I was there as the purges were just beginning, and many of my professors have left or been kicked out since I graduated. Further, I was in the humanities. What if a student majors in computer science or engineering? Will they ever be exposed to a teacher or ideas that are challenging or critical or revelatory of the world we actually live in?Is this whole issue really just about the choice whether or not to attend a religious university? B&S explain:
Thus, for example, the AAUP described a visit to the BYU campus at Provo as follows:Many faculty members shared in some detail the narratives of their problems with academic freedom, reappointment, promotion, and tenure, frequently producing documents but asking that their names and identifying circumstances not be included in this report. At least two cases are in litigation against the university. Some cases involve issues of personal conduct that are under investigation and others focus on academic research that raises concern with the administration. Several creative artists in different fields told of pressures to alter works to meet unclear administrative agendas…Numerous women, some in groups and some alone, spoke to the investigating committee about the hostile climate for women on campus.Reading this, though, one is led to wonder quite what they expected. Religious doctrine is always contested; therefore, disputes about academic freedom are inevitable given the existence of a policy which prohibits overt doctrinal heterodoxy. But it must be said that for a professor at a religious university to complain about this situation is a little bizarre. It comes with the territory. If you’re working within the confines of a revealed truth, then there’s a lot you can’t say. Indeed, with regard to BYU’s antipathy towards certain kinds of feminism, it is not unreasonable to ask, though it certainly isn’t politic, what exactly feminist scholars think they are doing working there in the first place? After all, the LDS Church is hardly covered in glory when it comes to its record on the rights of women.The situation at Brigham Young University, then, is fundamentally about religion, and the pressure which the requirement for doctrinal orthodoxy, both in words and practice, exerts upon the faculty. Religion and the pursuit of knowledge, even a religiously circumscribed ‘knowledge’, are uneasy bedfellows, so it is entirely to be expected that the university faculty and administration get along with each other only uneasily.
And so, yes, perhaps it is simply about choosing to attend or work at a religious institution. You simply do so knowing fully before you enter what you are choosing–an environment that forecloses the search for truth where truth is already known and where you risk punishment for the slightest wiff of heterodoxy. Perhaps the best thing to come out of this latest in a long string of firings at BYU is, again, the public debate about what a University education should be like and what it is actually like at BYU.