Enjoying the Academic Freedom to Be an Idiot · 20 July 2006

Filed under: Wisconsin
By Rick Moran--The American Thinker--07/20/06


Is this a great country or what?

Where else can a lecturer with marginal credentials, deep paranoia, and a self righteous streak a mile wide, play upon a gullible press eager for controversy to become an instant celebrity and a recognized "expert" on a subject so far removed from his own academic discipline it may as well be on the surface of the moon?

A University of Wisconsin-Madison part-time lecturer Kevin Barrett will be allowed to teach a course entitled "Islam: Religion and Culture" next term. If that were all the course was about, I would say so what? What's one more leftist loony bird teaching our impressionable young about the grievance culture of the Arabs, all the while dissing western civilization, and refighting the crusades?

The kids will probably fall asleep during class anyway.

But Mr. Barrett will apparently not stop with teaching the usual anti-western bromides and Arabian sob stories about colonialism and its deleterious effects on Islamic culture. Instead, this self described "Islamologist and Arabist" will take a week of class time to teach aspects of physics, metallurgy, thermal dynamics, engineering, and aviation.

Or not. You see, Mr. Barrett plans on teaching "alternative" theories of how the twin towers fell on 9/11. And in the name of academic freedom, the University of Wisconsin-Madison has given him the green light to do so - as long as he teaches "other viewpoints" (presumably what really happened) along with his theory that 9/11 was "an inside job" involving the American government.

Obviously, in order to present his theories, he must have a firm grounding in many scientific disciplines as well as some knowledge of engineering in order to debunk the established theory that two 767s filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds of jet fuel plowed into two 110 story buildings at more than 500 miles per hour, igniting and burning the fuel at several thousand degrees causing support structures to weaken until the weight bearing beams holding up the top several floors gave way allowing the entire edifice to pancake down to the ground. But Mr. Barrett has so far not shown that he has any expertise in anything, much less his possessing the specialized and collective knowledge of The American Society of Civil Engineers, whose brilliant analysis of why the towers fell is generally accepted in the scientific community as the best theory available about how the disaster happened.

This obviously won't stop Barrett from prattling on about subjects of which he knows little and scientific concepts of which he knows even less. But it does raise an interesting question: Does the cherished ideal of academic freedom allow teachers to have the absolute right to make gigantic fools of themselves?

Barrett wouldn't be the first academic to stray from his or her own tiny corner of the ivory tower and branch out into silliness. Perhaps the most famous case involves the Nobel Prize winning physicist William Shockley, whose startling discoveries along with his team at Bell Labs in the early 1950's led to several breakthroughs in transistor technology which, in turn, gave us the ubiquitous silicon micro-chip and the modern world.

In his later years, Shockley settled in to teach physics at Stanford University, a job that he enjoyed and was evidently very good at. But something happened to this brilliant, stubborn man that caused him to start espousing not only theories that were for the most part scientifically untenable but also socially unacceptable.

Shockley began to espouse the "theory" of eugenics as a key that would save mankind from overpopulation. He began by giving speeches about overpopulation, an issue coming to the fore in the early 1960's. Then in May of 1963, Shockley gave a speech at a Minnesota college suggesting that the people having the most babies in the world were the one's least able to survive while those with the best attributes were practicing birth control and having far fewer children.

The idea was incendiary and based on poor science to boot. The theoretical notion that poor people are less capable of becoming productive has been proven to be false as even extremely modest investments in things like education and sanitation will cause the productivity of the poverty-stricken to skyrocket.

But Shockley didn't stop there. A year later, he gave an interview to US News and World Report in which he pointed out that African Americans as a group scored much lower on IQ tests while suggesting the cause was racial. To say the good professor set off a firestorm would be an understatement. He was condemned from one side of the country to the other. In debates with opponents, his lack of specific knowledge of genetics would lead to him looking ridiculous as fellow scientists skewered his faulty conclusions. Even in later years after he immersed himself in the subject of bio-genetics, it was apparent that his theories were half baked and with little to recommend them to the scientific community.

Shockley was allowed to continue to teach at Stanford to the end of his life despite the raging controversy surrounding him and his cockamamie theories, a noble example of academic freedom in action. By the time he died, his reputation was in tatters and he had become something of a laughingstock.

But in Barrett's case, is it really a question of academic freedom? Or is it a question of allowing someone without the specialized knowledge to give students even a rudimentary grasp of the concepts involved in the subject matter, to spout nonsense from the classroom of one of the most respected universities in America?

Why shouldn't a Comparative Literature teacher now agitate to be allowed to teach a course in political science? Or chaos theory? Or any subject for which he has a passion? The idea that Barrett is going to be allowed to delve into subjects for which he has no formal knowledge is startling in its implications, not only for the concept of academic freedom but also the very practical matter of short-changing students who presumably have come to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to get an education.

Barrett may believe that the twin towers came down as the result of the US government placing explosive charges in the buildings prior to 9/11, and that the government destroyed them so that we could start a war against Islam and the Arabs. He can believe anything he wishes and should not be penalized by the school for his personal beliefs. But in order to "teach" such a theory while exposing his students to enough information so that they can make up their own minds about the viability of competing viewpoints, Barrett would need to give the students a solid enough grounding in the scientific principles at work in building collapse so that they would be able to judge whether the buildings fell as a result of implosion or the stresses outlined in the ASCE paper.

It should go without saying that he will be unable to do so in one week's time. This calls into question his entire rationale for teaching the controversy in the first place in a university class devoted ostensibly to learning about Islam. What's the point? If he's simply going to spout his loony conspiracy theories without giving any context, any background, how on earth can this kind of shoddy scholarship be accepted by the University as proper course material?

There are many remarkable facts at large in the telling of this story, not the least of which is an eerie parallel with arguments made by proponents of Intelligent Design who wish to teach ID alongside evolution; that students somehow benefit when "other viewpoints" are revealed to them about an issue. This statement from University Provost Patrick Farrell could have been lifted from the ID vs. Evolution debate:

"We cannot allow political pressure from critics of unpopular ideas to inhibit the free exchange of ideas," Farrell said in a written statement. "That classroom interaction is central to this university's mission and to the expansion of knowledge. Silencing that exchange now would only open the door to more onerous and sweeping restrictions."

The problem is that there is usually a good reason that ideas are unpopular, especially scientific ones: they tend to be wrong. One wonders if some evangelical professor wanted to teach creationism "alongside" evolution whether we would hear such ringing calls for tolerance and academic freedom from liberal academics and university officials.

That example is relative to the Barrett imbroglio. There is as much scientific validity in creationism as there is in the twin towers implosion theory. Perhaps more given the circumstances of conspiracy. One could debunk the theory of government culpability in 9/11 simply by using Occam's Razor. Is it more likely that the towers fell as a result of planes crashing into them or some gigantic plot involving certainly dozens, maybe hundreds, perhaps thousands of people all of whom have kept their mouths shut about their involvement? Anyone who has perused the pages of The American Thinker over the past two years and read in horror about the numerous leaks from the anti-Bush factions in our intelligence community would be justified in wondering why leaks about this government "plot" have not been forthcoming.

If this were just a question of academic freedom, I suspect most of us would simply roll our eyes and shrug our shoulders, chalking it up as one more example of the looniness the academy is prone to these days. But for many of us, this attempt to alter the historical narrative of 9/11 with the support of a respected university's administration is very troubling. It goes to the heart of the the university's mission to search for truth.

Is there truth to be gleaned from teaching that little green men live on Mars? Or that Elvis is alive and well and living in Traverse City, Michigan? Or that the stork is responsible for procreation? These examples are admittedly extreme but they highlight the problem the University of Wisconsin-Madison has created for itself; where does "the free exchange of ideas" end and outright stupidity begin? And shouldn't the intellectual mettle of a university be revealed by where it draws that line?

Rigor in scholarship should be the hallmark of any university. The fact that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is failing this basic academic test by allowing a crackpot to teach material that he is not qualified to pass judgment on is a travesty in education. The state legislature should examine this matter thoroughly. It could be that the present administration of the school is incompetent to deliver the kind of education to their children that Wisconsin parents might expect from an institution with such a stellar reputation for learning.
Rick Moran is a frequent contributor to the American Thinker and is proprietor of the blog Right Wing Nuthouse.