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The Meaning of a University Education (Musings after the BYU Thread) 16 June 2006

Posted 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.[8]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.



1. Ryan Kade - 16 June 2006

I appreciate your perspective, Todd.

In the “Fired” thread you characterized our disagreement as fundamentally about a vision of “what a university education is supposed to be.” You base this on an assumption that we all accept the premise that BYU is an institution which suppresses open academic thought. Let me offer another perspective on where we differ.

I do not disagree with the vision 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 don’t necessarily believe that those goals are incompatible with the more practical objectives of obtaining valued, marketable skills to use in future employment.

Where you and I disagree is whether or not this kind of vision can be accomplished in an environment as “restrictive” as BYU; whether or not such an environment unfairly impedes a student’s learning experience, at least as compared with other “open” institutions.

You obviously think it does, as do Benson and Stangroom. But I believe it has to do more with a personal attachment to the forbidden topics. Feminism, racism, homosexuality, etc. are all “hot button” issues with heavy political correctness attached to them. Moreover, they are issues on which the Church’s position draws heavy fire from a minority of extremely passionate people.

I wonder if we’d see an equivalent level of criticism of BYU were Nielsen fired for musings on pedophilia, for example. Had Nielsen written a column advocating and supporting NAMBLA, and were let go, would we see so much angry press about what a closed institution BYU was? My guess is, probably not. Because homosexuality has different political leverage in today’s culture than does pedophilia.

I appreciate the moderated tone toward the value of a BYU degree. I really don’t think the data could reasonably support any other conclusion. BYU graduates, on average, are just as critically thinking as those of any other comparable institution, if not more so. If this “closed” atmosphere truly detracts from the individual’s effectiveness in society, better evidence needs to be introduced to that effect.

PS. I am not comparing homosexuality to pedophilia in this post, just to make sure that’s clear.

2. Randy - 17 June 2006

Ryan, I don’t know how one can generalize about whether BYU grads think as critically as grads of other institutions, apart from presenting anecdotal evidence one way or the other. I will say this–I got my B.A. from a large state university, and my M.A. and J.D. from private, nondenominational universities. The private schools had more rigorous intellectual programs, for sure, but the state school exposed me to far more diversity of personalities and social and political opinions than did the private schools, and gave me a deep respect for the role of free speech and free thought in a democratic society. I understand that BYU has every right to enforce doctrinal purity as it sees fit–I suppose the school has as part of its mission the formation of doctrinally correct Mormon minds, after all–but I wonder whether colleges like BYU are doing students a disservice by limiting students’ exposure to viewpoints that make the brethren uncomfortable. I don’t advocate a department of anti-Mormon studies at BYU, but I could see how it might benefit students to hear heterodox viewpoints.

I also wonder whether doctrine and politics are being conflated here. The department chair’s rationale suggested that Nielsen was being trashcanned for disagreeing with the big dawgs on a point of doctrine. I wasn’t aware that the Proclamation on the Family is doctrinally binding, and it’s the only source I’m aware of that explicitly condemns gay marriage. But does opposition to the political vehicle of a constitutional amendment constitute a disagreement with church doctrine? I know that Nielsen went beyond merely expressing opposition to the amendment, but as one who voted “no” on a similar amendment in my state, I wonder whether I now am officially apostate.

3. J. Todd Ormsbee - 17 June 2006

Ryan and Randy,

[I’m cutting and pasting a couple grafs from something I posted over at Messenger and Advocate.]

Having been raised mormon, I certainly understand … thinking about things spiritually. However, at this point in my life, the distinction no longer makes sense. I think that ‘spiritual truth’ can and should be able to withstand the same standards of logic and evidence as any other line of inquiry. The problem I have with most “spiritual inquiry” is that it is based in feelings and experiences, which can often be inaccurate measures of the truth of an idea or value. So while I agree … that truth is truth, I think [Ryan] and I would have greatly divergeant ideas about the proper method to arrive at those truths.

I owe much to mormonism for starting me on my own spiritual path and giving me certain values I still hold dear, including and especially my love for the search for truth itself.

This, for me, at least in the direction our conversation is having, is the key: How do you you seek out truth? In other words, it’s a question of method. There are two big method problems that I see at BYU.

1. Forbidden Topics. I think this is really at the core of where BYU’s learning environment is, for me, problematic, is that there would be “forbidden topics” in the first place. The very idea is anethema to the search for truth.

I’m a sociologist, and I know that all communities have “sacred cows”, as it were, that are “off limits”. In academia, knowledge kind of moves forward in a kind of “punctuated equilibrium” sometimes, where an idea is relatively confirmed and is taken as axiomatic, until something causes the community of scholars to actually reexamine their assumtions. The problem at BYU is that there are topics which can never be addressed at all, so there is no possibility of advancement of knowledge or for the community of scholars (with their students) to do the work.

2. Pre-determined outcomes. When the forbidden topics are addressed in any way, the outcomes are known from the beginning. This is, as I’ve mentioned before, a profound intellectual error. If you ask a research question when already knowing the answer, then you have determined already how you will answer your question (research methods, more narrowly defined); you have already decided which data you will accept and which you will reject, based on your expected outcome rather than the validity of the data; you have already decided how to interpret your data, therefore deciding in advance to ignore, hide, or distort your data. This is not merely bad research; it’s not research at all. Effective research, while beginning with certain assumptions, must procede with openness to findings, willingness to be surprised and accept what one finds, the ability to suspend beliefs, expectations, and values in order not to distort your findings, etc.

3. Moral research. Part of the problem at BYU is that, as a religious institution in a religion that is highly dependent on emotion states as evidence of truth (i.e., feeling the spirit), certain questions are seen as “moral” questions. As human beings in any culture, our moralities feel natural to us and make up a foundational part of our world views, so challenging them or thinking critically about them is tricky under the best of circumstances. (Many conservative criticisms of multiculturalism in universities, for example, are pointing to this phenomenon among academics.) However, in the humanities, we have learned over the past 300 years or so that moral questions 1) are culturally bound (this is obvious from the most cursory examination of anthropological and sociological data); and more importantly 2) that given the moral pluralism of the world, we need to apply the rules of rational inquiry to our moral questions.

This means, simply, that morality must be made with arguments, rational thinking, evidence and substantiation. Put even more simply, rational reasonsn must be given for any moral proposition. In a religious university, such as BYU, particular moral questions (in the case of Prof. Nielsen, gay marriage) are out of reach of rational inquiry, because of the particular cultural moment of the church and mormon culture in dealing with gay and lesbian people in the larger culture. In other words, morality requires scientific habits of mind (meaning the intellectual processes of scientific thinking, not necessarily the methods of “hard” science). This is at the core of the humanities side of a liberal arts education. In a religious university that forbids that kind of inquiry, faculty’s ability to think, research, and dialogue about those issues is compromised. This is important even outside of huamnities fields. (Consider how narrowly focused and controled the biology professor had to be in discussing the social implications of the current research about homosexuality last year.)

More to the point about the quality of education and learning to think (substantive, critically, and evaluatively), a professor at BYU has forbidden topics, compromised method, and no way to do open moral research and thinking, then necessarily that professor’s ability to teach studentss those skills are undermined.

4. J. Todd Ormsbee - 17 June 2006

What if Nielsen had talked about pedophilia in support of NAMBLA. It is probably best to think about what *should* happen, rather than what would’ve happened:

Let’s say Nielsen is at my university, SJSU, rather than BYU. He goes on a radio program to talk about NAMBLA and adovate the groups goals. He would, presumably, have reasons and research to back him up.

What would happen: He would be engaged by scholars on his own campus and around the country. He would probably suffer quite a beating, because the research on pedophiles is extensive, and it all points to sociopathology (see my earlier post on pedophilia). Further, and more importantly, the research on the childhood victims of pedophiles is overwhelming, and there’s no way he would get away with arguing that NAMBLA members should be allowed to have their relationships.

In other words, the principles of academic freedom would work: He would freely say what he thinks are his valid conclusions (without reprisal from the university) and then he would be *engaged* by other scholars. The argument might be brief (as I suspect in this particular case it would be) or it could be drawn out. If there is something to his arguments, it would probably eventually surface and become part of the consensus on the subject.

Think of the arguments about plate techtonics in the late 1960s. It took about 5 years for the debate to work itself out, but now all of us were taught it in elementary school. (And who knows where future research will lead us.) Or consider the professor in illinois who is a hollocaust denier or Huntington at Harvard who just published a book on the “differences” of Mexicans. Consider how they freely make these arguments and then the community of experts engage them (often while uniformed journalists and pundits argue about it on cable news).

Even with homosexuality this happens. About two years ago, a couple of sociological studies revealed that children of gay parents are more likely to have gay sex as adults. Because of the Christian right’s argument that gays shouldn’t be allowed to raise children because they’ll turn the kids gay, this was an incredibly difficult result to hear for many (not for me, because I actually read the studies and it made sense to me). And so a brief (only about 6 month) controversy ensued: But what came out at the end was that the researchers were correct. Here’s what their research actually showed:

1. Children of gay parents are almost universally more liberal than the average population.

2. Children of gay parents are not homophobic at all. The are completely comfortable with same-sex affection, relationships, and love. (Duh.)

3. So children of gay parents are five times as likely as children of straight parents to have had gay sex. They are, quite simply, not repulsed by it, as it seems normal to them.

4. However, as they grow up and pair off, they actually end up with orientations that reflect the overall population (i.e., 4% to 6% are gay, the rest are straight). In other words, they’re comfortable experimenting or just messing around with people of the same sex, but their orientations are the same as the general population.

The reason I bring this up is because I think that you’re right about the political power of homosexuality in the U.S. right now, so the public attention paid was significantly higher than other kinds of controversies (no one cared when Brian Evanson got canned, because he was just a fiction writer). However, among academics (like me), you’ll notice that the debate is more nuanced and focused on the academy and freedom and inquiry; even in the bloggernacle, the arguments are about the role of a BYU professor, not about homosexuality per se. Does that make sense?

5. Ryan Kade - 17 June 2006

You’ll probably not be satisfied with this response, but I feel we keep “drifting in the lanes” on this topic. Debating how truth is discovered, analyzed, and verified, was not really my purpose. I expected that you and I would have strong differences on arriving at truth, since I remain a practicing Mormon and you do not. I take certain truths for granted–axiomatically, as you say—and I’m comfortable with that.

Don’t misunderstand, I think discussion is useful. When someone asks me about my stance on gay marriage, I don’t say simply, “God says so,” and leave it at that. There are empirical social data to be analyzed and valid logical arguments to be made. But I do not feel the need (nor do I find the effort fruitful) to probe them in the manner Nielsen demands. His tone in that article was not one of “hey, let’s have an honest discussion about this” but instead was hostile and critical. Furthermore, I think the column belies a more serious problem with church doctrine and history anyway.

But again this is something of a digression from my complaint. The problem I keep coming back to again and again is whether or not that belief inhibits the learning experience. Are students who are not exposed, for example, to intense debates on homosexuality being unfairly denied the chance to “explore their world, try on new ideas, and examine human diversity”? Have they been barred from knowing how to “participate fully and intelligently in a democracy, knowing how to argue, the rules of evidence, the structures of arguments”?

These are your words, Todd, and they are hard charges. As Mormons we accept certain truths as self-evident. They are given by revelation, an inherently (and intentionally, IMO) unverifiable method of disseminating truth. I do not expect everyone to accept this at face value, but I do challenge the idea that somehow accepting such truths as-is damages my ability to learn and to function effectively or even excellently in society.

Randy felt he benefited from the diverse opinions he was exposed to at a state university. I can appreciate that. But I find no reason to accept the premise that it made his education or his learning de facto superior. I could even argue, if you’ll pardon a slightly personal tone, that such exposure could detract from the overall learning experience, such as causing someone to question their faith to the point where they forsake it. One may be more intellectually astute as a result, but that doesn’t necessarily make them a happier or better person. And it certainly doesn’t mean they are less able to compete in either business or higher learning.

Moreover, let me reiterate that I think this has more to do with political correctness than any high-minded principles on academic freedom. I used the pedophilia example before, but I could come up with a dozen others that, had Nielsen advocated them instead of this, the outcry of academic oppression would likely have been muted.

To answer Randy’s final question, I do not believe that “opposition to the political vehicle of a constitutional amendment constitutes a disagreement with church doctrine.” I think one could legitimately be against gay marriage and against a constitutional amendment on strictly constitutional grounds. Of course, as a practicing Mormon, I would urge caution in any position that contradicts the advice of the church leadership, but I do not think that such reasoning makes someone an “apostate” in this case.

Let me add parenthetically that I regret the use of the term “forbidden topics” which you seem to have latched on to. It carries this kind of pejorative meaning which contributes to a puritanical view of BYU that I did not intend. Better to say that certain approaches to certain topics are considered unnecessary and harmful, for the reasons I have outlined. I say “certain approaches” because not all approaches are equal. I attended classes where homosexuality or evolution was discussed, and discussed openly and appropriately. Jeffrey Nielsen’s approach on the other hand, was not.

6. Ryan Kade - 17 June 2006

I posted my response and then saw yours, so apologies for the follow up.

Yes, I understand what you’re saying and I don’t necessarily disagree. And I commend you on standing on principle. I truly believe you are in the minority.

It is interesting you take such solace in the way the system “ought” to work. You believe that this hypothetical pro-pedophilia professor would be drummed out on the merits (or lack thereof) of his arguments. But as you yourself note, things change. Ideas once accepted as axiomatic are challenged; new research is done. Science is not always perfect, particularly when it comes to verification of moral questions.

Moreover, science is not the sole or even primary source that the public at-large turns to for moral direction. Most people are not against pedophilia because of the research you cited. In a democratic republic, this is an important distinction.

Thus, the church takes a different tact. It believes it has discovered truth via incontrovertible means. There is no risk, except in the case new revelation, that any new research will overturn previously accepted truths.

Again I must emphasize that this all is a bit of diversion from my more (for me) interesting point of how this affects a college education. So to come full circle: Nielsen’s firing, had it been based on pedophilia and not homosexuality, would not only have garnered significantly less criticism and attention, but it would have done so on reasons quite different from the ones you cited. In my opinion, most people (maybe not most professors–who knows) would not have seen such a result as an act of academic oppression.

You may be different. You may see all curtailing of academic inquiry no matter what the topic as a limit on academic freedom. For me, I think there are some topics simply not worth exploring, strictly on moral grounds alone. And I do not subscribe to the idea that such a position makes me an inferior debate partner. 😉

7. mattblack - 17 June 2006

I’m not sure I buy your argument that this is more about the controversial nature of gay marriage than academic freedom. What’s at stake is that the church claims the right to draw a circle around valid realms of inquiry and fire anyone who crosses that line. Remember, it was an official edict by the church that started this, Nielsen was just responding to it. This is about public dissent and the repurcutions that follow. This is about church leaders claiming absolute authority in setting the agenda at BYU. That most students get a decent education is not the point. The question is whether such top-down circumscription of truth seeking is antithetical to the nature and idea of the University. I would argue that it is. I know I sat through dozens of classes at BYU where I saw my professors self-censor and tip-toe around sensitive subjects. I saw others get fired because they refused to do so. I saw reading lists and curriculums altered so as not to possibly offend anyone. These actions most definitely have an impact on actual students and their education.

8. BYU Is at It Again—9/11 Conspiracy Theorist Put on Leave « Todd’s Hammer - 8 September 2006

[…] BYU’s own policy actually “splits” academic freedom into two parts (see my earlier post about academic freedom at BYU), where you have complete academic freedom on anything that doesn’t directly touch on the church or the institution’s mormon mission or student faith; when you do or say anything that touches the church or BYU’s connection to the church, you are no longer protected.  In most of these academic freedom issues, BYU’s rationale is that the professor violated their contract by questioning the church, which it has separated as a different aspect of academic freedom. […]

9. diana s. - 8 September 2006

I don’t know if this will even be seen since I’m replying to a very old post, but I want to comment on the pedophelia vs. homosexuality part. Pedophelia is child abuse. Homosexuality is not child abuse. Ryan, even though you probably won’t see this, you ARE comparing homosexuality and pedophelia in your argument. Of course people would respond differently to someone advocating child abuse than to someone advocating tolerance of sexual preference.

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