Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why Tenure Exists, Part 1

cross-posted from Dagblog

Zandar, at Balloon Juice, points out that Missouri's new Creationism-in-the-schools bill, HB 1227, applies not only to K-12 schools but to the state's public colleges and universities as well. According to the bill,
Notwithstanding any other law, any introductory science course taught at any public institution of higher education in this state, including material concerning physics, chemistry, biology, health, physiology, genetics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, paleontology, anthropology, ecology, climatology, or other science topics,
will be regulated by the requirements of the law, which means equal time for the "intelligent design" theory.

If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a course of study, biological evolution and biological intelligent design shall be taught. ... If scientific theory concerning biological origin is taught in a textbook, the textbook shall give equal treatment to biological evolution and biological intelligent design.

Now, this bill will probably never become law. But I find it simultaneously disgusting and amusing that only "introductory" classes are regulated, meaning that University of Missouri faculty would still be free to teach actual science to their majors (who would only be misled in Biology/Geology/Physics 101 but hipped to what's really what in the next class) while all the non-majors filling distribution requirements would get a set of deliberately dishonest courses designed to insulate them from any scientific knowledge that would challenge their faith-based misconceptions.

That pretty much sums up the religious right approach to science. They want a small group of actual scientists and engineers who know how things really work, and a much larger class of scientific illiterates who are left free to believe anything that makes them feel good about themselves. Scientists are meant to be a special caste, given the privilege of pursuing knowledge at the price of keeping it to themselves.

What's merely disgusting, and not amusing, is that the proposed law applies not just to biology but to physics, astrophysics, and geology, and outlaws anything but "empirical fact," meaning in practice that which conservative Missouri lawmakers consider to be an empirical fact. Millions of years of fossil records are clearly not "empirical" enough. The Big Bang Theory, and with it the rest of the Standard Model in physics, surely does not make the cut; the Big Bang is just someone's interpretation of some radio hiss, right? String theory, likewise, cannot yet be confirmed. Nor, if we come down to it, would Special Relativity or Hubble's constant make the lawmaker's cut, since like so much of science these ideas are largely demonstrated through mathematics. If you take out the parts of contemporary science that rest on abstruse mathematical proof, you leave pretty large holes in our understanding of the world.

The only saving grace, of course, is that tenured science professors, even at state universities, could not be forced to to do this, and more importantly could not be fired for teaching their students real science. This is the first and most important reason for academic tenure: to insulate the pursuit and transmission of knowledge from the worst outside pressures. Tenure is the reason that "intelligent design" is NOT taught in public colleges and universities, even in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Tenured college teachers are free from political pressure in a way that high school teachers have never been. Without tenure, the facts about science, about history, about the world we live in, became subject to the whims of the State Legislature, or the Board of Trustees, or the college's biggest donor, rather than being subject to the actual facts.

Tenure is often imagined as a personal job perk, and it's true that there have been occasions when tenure has been abused at this college or that. But it's not just part of an employment package, like a dental plan or a 401(k), because it is not designed as a reward for an individual but as a privilege for an activity. Tenure is designed to enable and to protect the pursuit of knowledge. It keeps scientists who study climate change from being fired for studying climate change, or for finding out things that some influential person doesn't want to be true. Tenure operates, in effect, as one of the academy's quality control guarantees. It offers a base-line reassurance that the information produced by academic research is on the level, and has not been cooked up in some bigwig's office.

In order to do this, tenure does offer individual scholars real and valuable privileges. But the core of the privilege is the freedom to do your job right. It does not protect anyone's right to do their job poorly, although that is how it is frequently portrayed. Tenure has sometimes been turned into a cover for shoddy work habits, but that's not in keeping with even the letter, let alone the spirit, of the law; no one's university bylaws allow the tenured to skip their duties. If I decided never to show up for the classes I teach, tenure should not and would not protect me. If, on the other hand, two-thirds of my Board of Trustees became enthusiastic converts to the idea that the Earl of Oxford wrote the works of William Shakespeare, and ordered me to give "Oxfordian thinking" equal time in my classroom, tenure would allow me to politely tell them no and go back to teaching reality-based literary history. They couldn't do a thing about it. That's what tenure is for. It keeps the job of spreading knowledge in the hands of people who actually know what they're teaching.

Of course, if a bill like Missouri's ever became law, the problem would be that many introductory classes, the ones that the Missouri legislature feels free to meddle with, are largely taught by untenured and untenurable "part-time" instructors, who are employed at will. The advanced classes are taught by the tenured faculty, who cannot be punished for teaching actual science, but most of the lower-level classes are given to poorly-paid adjunct teachers who can be fired without even giving a reason. Under HB 1227, those people would have to give equal time to "intelligent design," or to global cooling, or to astrology, as the Missouri State Legislature saw fit, or else be replaced by someone who would. Lots of people who call themselves educational "reformers" talk about the need to have fewer tenured faculty members; this is what they're talking about.

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