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Thursday, March 17, 2005

Education does not require relativism

At Stake Is Academic Freedom

Here is an exerpt from a speech given by Mr. Stephen Thernstrom, Winthrop professor of history at Harvard University, regarding the President Summers situation at a meeting of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Science. The following attracted my attention:
At our last meeting devoted to discussion of this issue, one speaker glossed the term "provocative," used several times by President Summers in his offending comments at the NBER. She contended that the term was in fact quite sinister because to provoke is to provoke conflict, sometimes even violent conflict, and we certainly don't want that in the university "community." I, to the contrary, think that a provocative speech in the academy is intended to provoke thought and reasoned argument.

Equally questionable, in my view, are the repeated references that faculty members have made to the Harvard "community," which are intended to suggest that President Summers had given voice to outrageous ideas violating the norms of the community. Is Harvard University really a "community" that requires ideological conformity? The First Baptist Church of Peoria is a community in that sense, with a common conception of God and how best to worship Him. Possibly Bob Jones University is a community. But no great university can long remain great if it attempts to enforce the equivalent of a religious creed on its members. What really holds the members of the Harvard "community" together is much more limited. It is simply a common commitment to pursue the truth through disciplined scholarship, and a faith that freedom of inquiry is the best means to arrive at the truth. I find the "provocative" remarks made by President Summers entirely consistent with that community norm.

I do have to admit that it is somewhat difficult to defend the academic freedom of a man who seems to have surrendered it again and again, in his ever more abject apologies for his NBER remarks. Nevertheless, President Summers is not the sole owner of the right of academic freedom, and he thus cannot surrender it for all of us.
For the most part, I agree with Mr. Thernstrom. If the "creed" of an institution of higher learning is academic freedom, then the faculty should be consistent. However, not every institution chooses to make that its creed. Are they then any less of an academic institution?

It is clearly possible to pursue truth through disciplined scholarship, inquiry into the world around us and remain true to a creed. Mr. Thernstrom indicates that TRUTH can never really be known because you must always engage in an endless search for it. The discovery of new "truths" in the world around us lead us to that TRUTH.

So, it appears, academics become a spiritual pursuit.

What Christian educators hold is that TRUTH is known. It is revealed to us in the Bible. However, there are many "truths" that we can learn in the world around us. Part of that education is seeing how those "truths" relate to revealed TRUTH.

Students at BJU may not follow the same process of education that students at Harvard receive. They do enter the world with a competitive product. Academics do not have to be based in relativism in order to prepare young people to succeed in life.


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