Monday, April 16, 2007

"Intellectual Diversity"???

This is too awful for words, but I'll try.

The Missouri House of Representatives has passed a bill promoting "intellectual diversity" in higher learning. Now, being somewhat literal minded, I figured this was some kind of affirmative action program for stupid people. I mean, "ethnic diversity" means including people of different ethnic backgrounds, and "political diversity" means including people of differing political views. So obviously, "intellectual diversity" means including people with differing levels of intellect.

So I'm envisioning the state colleges of Missouri opening their doors to people who were previously excluded because they weren't smart enough. Call me elitist, but this seems like a bad idea to me.

But then I read some of the discussion of the issue (especially good coverage by PZ Myers and Digby), and actually looked at the text of the bill, which says
..."intellectual diversity" is defined as the foundation of a learning environment that exposes students to a variety of political, ideological, religious, and other perspectives, when such perspectives relate to the subject matter being taught or issues being discussed.
So I'm sort of having an Emily Litella moment. Sort of.

But the more I think about it, the less I like the idea. I totally agree with the notion that colleges should be places where one is free to air one's views, and the bill does give at least nominal credence to the notion of free expression. On the other hand, buried deep in the language of the bill is this (right after establishing policies to ensure that heckling doesn't interfere with expression of views):
(e) Include intellectual diversity concerns in the institution's guidelines on teaching and program development and such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant;
So now the intent of the authors becomes clear: they want to ensure that a particular religious view is given special standing, intellectually speaking. I do have issues with singling out particular views as being special, particularly religious views. My guess is that singling out one such viewpoint for special treatment will run afoul of the First Amendment's establishment and free exercise clauses.

But more than that, it worries me that they potentially put certain viewpoints out of the realm of discussion. I don't mind if they want to posit a religious viewpoint in a classroom discussion. But that viewpoint has to be subject to the same level of investigation and scrutiny as any other. I envision every class discussion degenerating into an endless filibuster about religion, and people's feeling being hurt because their "inerrant" source was made subject to scrutiny.

There are certainly valid questions about the role of religious belief in higher education, and questions about the attitude of academia in how it deal with belief and believers. But the answer is definitely not to codify one particular religious belief as being particularly worthy. What seems appropriate is some kind of dialogue about the role of religious beliefs in public education, but not the ramming of a particular religion into the classroom, whether it wants to be there or not.

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