Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The Wisconsin Lawmakers need a Critical Thinking Course

Thomas Nadelhoffer has an update on the Barrett case over at Leiter Reports. The LA Times just reported that 61 of the 133 Wisconsin lawmakers demanded that Barrett be fired. What continues to bedevil me about this issue is precisely what Nadelhoffer points out: namely, that the grounds upon which the lawmakers decided to fire Barrett were comments he made to a call-in right wing news program. We have no evidence, yet, that Barrett is "teaching" his hypothesis that the U.S. is responsible for the destruction of the twin towers on 9/11. What I imagine is objectionable to these lawmakers about Barrett's comments is the prospect that he might teach this hypothesis as "fact," and then test students on this in his upcoming course on "Islam: Religion and Culture." Fine. But, he hasn't taught the course and so we don't know if he were to engage in such questionable teaching practices. What he is more likely to do is tell his students what his views are. Is the latter behavior such that the lawmakers should defund the University of Wisconsin? I am not yet convinced, btw, that if he were to share his hypothesis about the twin towers to his class, that he has somehow violated his role as professor.

Let me share a real live example to illustrate my point. Two years ago I invited a Computer Science professor to lecture my class on Artificial Intelligence. This was his area of research and I thought he could really get students excited about the various philosophical and moral questions raised by his work. I photocopied several pages from the textbook I was using and sent them to his office. He read the text and immediately was offended by the anti-religious tone of the author. Unbeknownst to me, my colleague is a committed Christian--of the fundamentalist and evangelical persuasion. And, his lecture transformed into a refutation of the textbook's assertion that "souls" are difficult things to investigate, study, or make hypotheses about since they are not empirical. He continued with a personal tale of what faith in God has meant for his life and why it lead him to make certain decisions etc. He spent his entire lecture time proselytizing. Should the college have put him on notice? Did he brainwash my students? No and No.

Nadelhoffer summarizes the flawed reasoning of the Wisconsin lawmakers as follows:

"It appears the good lawmakers of Wisconsin are operating under the following assumptions: (1) If P says x in public, then clearly P will teach x to her students. (2) If most people believe x is false and P is going to be teaching x to her students, P ought to be fired. The unfolding debate seems to focus on the merits of (2)--which is pretty bad as far as it goes--but we need to be focusing on (1) instead. After all, absent evidence that Barrett will be teaching his students his views concerning 9/11--we have no way of evaluating the merits of the argument the legislators have put forward. "

If the lawmakers use such specious reasoning to defund the University of Wisconsin, then they are setting themselves up for a great deal of scrutiny and criticism if they don't take action against colleagues like mine from Computer Sci.