March 11, 2016
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, March 11, 2016. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Stanford Review argues for Western Civ class in curriculum, affirming Judeo-Christian mores
What happens on campus doesn’t stay on campus. That’s why watching what’s taking place in America’s academic life, especially on the campuses of leading colleges and universities, tells us a great deal not only about the present but the shape of the future. But it also requires us to look to the past. Back in the 1980s, there was a fervent controversy at Stanford University, one of America’s leading academic institutions. And at Stanford, the university which had long had a Western civilization requirement for all undergraduates, it abandoned that requirement in an age of political correctness, in an age of multiculturalism, in an age of widespread intellectual change.
Just recently on February 21, the Stanford Review Editorial Board published an article in which they called for a reinstatement of the Western civilization requirement at Stanford. Now whether or not this proposal gains any traction at Stanford, the important thing is that right now in the year 2016, the effort is even being made and the argument is even being presented in public. You recall just in recent days on The Briefing, we cited an article by Patrick Deneen, a professor at University of Notre Dame, who described his students in these words, he said,Show Full Transcript
“My students are know-nothings. They are exceedingly nice, pleasant, trustworthy, mostly honest, well-intentioned, and utterly decent. But their brains are largely empty, devoid of any substantial knowledge that might be the fruits of an education in an inheritance and a gift of a previous generation.”
What’s really interesting in this proposal from the Stanford Review is the fact that at least at Stanford there are some voices saying that this needs to be reversed, that students need to be taught about Western civilization, our history, and that civilizational inheritance in order that they can have an historical and moral framework from which to judge the present and even to decide upon the shape of the civilization they believe is right for the future. As the Stanford Review editors said,
“Reasonable people may disagree about policy, but on a deeper level, Western societies have the best track record in enhancing individual well-being. Without a deeper appreciation for these values, society will neither be prepared to meet the demands imposed by liberty nor will it be able to sustain economic growth.”
Now that last statement about economic growth is intended for maximum effect at a university like Stanford which is, after all, located so close to Silicon Valley and thus takes economic growth not only as a necessary given but as a moral mandate. What’s really interesting here is that the arguments being made and the background to the argument itself is really interesting. Back in the 1980s when Stanford abandoned that Western civilization requirement in the core curriculum for all undergraduates, it basically began to allow any number of courses to apply and count where Western civilization had once been defined. But the editors of the Stanford Review wrote,
“However, academic populism ironically reigns supreme for Stanford’s WAYS (general education) requirements. Tens, even hundreds, of classes satisfy each WAYS specification.”
Then comes this sentence,
“Stanford tells students what they need to learn before they can choose upper-level classes within their majors; it should do the same for the rest of its students’ education. Students need help to determine what they should learn for future careers.”
Well, we should be concerned with their careers, but we should be concerned at a far deeper level. What’s really interesting here is the acknowledgement that the Stanford University has no problem whatsoever telling students in engineering what they have to take before they can take something else. There is a body of basic engineering that has to be known, and that would include math and science and other specific undergraduate courses required before moving on to more advanced classes. As the Stanford Review says, the university has no reluctance whatsoever to state those prerequisite courses, but when it comes to civilization, to moral meaning, the meaning of the universe of the cosmos all around us—to the biggest questions of life—Stanford says, “We basically know nothing about what to require of students, what all students need to know about issues of the greatest importance.” That’s an amazing insight, and it’s very interesting as I say that this debate has reemerged at Stanford University in the year 2016.
Feminist Glaciology? The importance of worldview on display ad nauseam
But then we need to ask the question, what does the Academy look like? What does a college or university look like when it gives itself entirely over to the ideologies of the day? The Wall Street Journal pointed to an example of this: In almost most every edition of the Journal there is a citation from another article, an article from another publication that it often just introduces by stating the documentation, then it lets the excerpt speak for itself. In this case, the editors simply introduce the selection by writing this is,
“From ‘Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research,’ a paper by researchers at the University of Oregon, underwritten by the U.S. National Science Foundation, in the journal Progress in Human Geography, Jan. 10, 2016.”
Here follows the excerpt,
“Ice is not just ice. The dominant way Western societies understand it through the science of glaciology is not a neutral representation of nature. The feminist glaciology framework draws attention to those who dominate and frame the production of glaciological knowledge, the gendered discourses of science and knowledge, and the ways in which colonial, military, and geopolitical domination co-constitute glaciological knowledge. Even in a globalized age where the place of women and indigenous people has improved markedly in some parts of the world, masculinist discourses continue to dominate, in subtle and determinative ways.”
It then goes on to argue for what is described as a feminist glaciology.
What in the world is that? It is an understanding of glaciers, a science of coming to understand glaciers that is preceded by the word “feminist” and not only by the word, but by the worldview and the ideology. As I read directly from the excerpt, here you have a straightforward argument coming from presumably a feminist scholar that what we’re looking at in the science of glaciology is the fact that glaciers have for far too long been described in, well, here’s the word, “masculinist” terms. That’s exactly what the article says. It says that in some parts of the world, masculinist discourses continue to dominate in subtle and determinative ways. Now the article presumably goes on to identify just how masculinist discourses continue to define glaciers in a way that feminists would find objectionable. But what we need to note is that this article was simply lifted out of current scientific literature in order to make a point and, by the way, the point isn’t editorialized upon. It’s simply in the introduction where it is stated that this article is in published literature where the researchers are identified as being from the University of Oregon and where the research itself is described in the Journal as being “underwritten by the United States National Science Foundation.”
So here we have several issues that demand our attention. In the first place, we have something described here as science that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with science at all. We’re talking about glaciers and ice after all, but this has been transformed into a culture war, into the accusation that glaciology is not “a neutral representation of nature,” and instead, a call for what’s described as a feminist glaciology.
Just remind yourself once again we’re talking about ice here. We’re talking about glaciers. The next thing we need to note is how ideology straightforwardly is presented as primary, and that’s something we need to understand. There’s an odd acknowledgment here that we ought to appreciate. There’s the acknowledgement that worldview matters. In this case you have someone writing from a feminist perspective that is certain that feminism matters and ought to drive the worldview that every other aspect of reality should be understood through the lens of ideological feminism. Christians can understand that, at least to this point: it’s the acknowledgement of the importance of worldview. It’s also for us a clear warning of the fact that any worldview that isn’t grounded in Scripture—isn’t comprehensively based in the truthfulness of Christianity—will lead us to very odd places, indeed very dangerous places, and to even the eccentric argument of making the claim that there is a masculinist prejudice in understanding glaciers in glaciology.
The other thing we need to note—and this is not unimportant—is that we were paying for this. The Wall Street Journal is surely making that point by just observing that this was research underwritten by the U.S. National Science Foundation. We were paying for this. This is an example of what the government funds when it funds research. And then lastly on this topic, just imagine being a student, an undergraduate in particular, perhaps even a college or university freshman, sitting in a classroom taught by a professor who talks this way. What in the world is that student supposed to know? How is the student supposed to receive this? That’s what’s taking place on college and university campuses writ large. Young people are arriving on these campuses and they’re being force-fed this kind of, well, I’ll just call it drivel, the kind of argument that we now need a feminist glaciology.
But how many students know enough, how many Christian students actually know enough in terms of Christian truth, biblical foundations, and the Christian worldview in order recognize this for what it is? The really, really scary thing from a Christian worldview perspective is not that this research took place; it’s not that the article is published in a scientific journal; it’s not even that taxpayers, we included, paid for it. No, the really scary thing is that there is a market for this, and this market includes students by the millions on our college and university campuses, who as we have just said often don’t know enough to recognize what they’re hearing when they receive this kind of argument and when they receive it from a winsome professor, a professor who tells them that what is needed right now and needed urgently is a feminist glaciology in order to correct the predominant masculine discourses that have defined our understanding of ice until now.
Science community excommunicates heretics: journal pulls article that mentions "Creator"
Next, an even more important article in a similar theme appeared this week in the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Consider that periodical as a combination of the New York Times and Time magazine when it comes to higher education. It is the single most important publication having to do with what takes place in America’s academic life. Paul Baskin, reporting for the Chronicle of Higher Education, has written an article entitled,
“Paper Praising ‘Creator’ Puts Fear of God in Open-Access Giant.”
What’s going on here? Well, you have a scientific journal, indeed the world’s largest scientific journal, that just had to apologize and retracted an article in which researchers had simply made mention of a Creator. As Basken writes,
“PLOS ONE, the world’s largest scientific journal, on Friday retracted an article exploring the mechanics of the human hand after scientists complained about its reverential references to the body’s design by ‘the Creator.’”
Basken goes on to say,
“The article, which had been published on January 5 by a team based in China, was retracted after an investigation by PLOS editors determined it was scientifically unreliable.”
The editor said,
“‘On this particular occasion, unfortunately, our prepublication processes failed. Both our internal quality control and the peer review — I think both failed, and were not up to our standards.’”
What was the kind of language in this scientific research paper that so offended the scientific community? Well, here’s the most offensive statement,
“Hand coordination should indicate the mystery of the creator’s invention.”
That was enough to send the scientific secular mainstream into an absolute tailspin, into a paroxysm of concern. Many online critics according to Basken suggested that its authors or editors—that is of the particular article—“may have been promoting a creationist ideology known as intelligent design.”
Others accused the journal of overreacting, saying that the use of the term “Creator” may have actually just been a poor translation of a Chinese idiom that could easily have been translated as nature. That’s a really fascinating thing. What if the authors in this case didn’t even intend to use the word “Creator,” but it was a translation issue? Well, in any event, the entire article has now been pulled and those who are looking with suspicion that there just might be lurking behind this research papers someone who is actually a Christian. Basken reports,
“Chinese-language experts contacted by The Chronicle gave differing assessments of whether the problem might have been largely a matter of translation. One suggested the use of ‘creator’ rather than “nature” could be a reasonable explanation. Another was less sympathetic and noted the academic editor listed on the paper, Renzhi Han, an associate professor of surgery at Ohio State University, appears from a web listing to have had an affiliation with the Chinese Evangelical Church in Iowa City, where he previously worked.”
Let’s look at exactly what we’re dealing with here. The article straightforwardly tells us that someone went to the website where one of the professors in the article had previously worked in order to follow web links to determine if there just might have been any Christian identification. This is almost like something we would expect from the Soviet Union back during the 50s and 60s and 70s—the kind of ideological cleansing, the kind of suspicion that someone just might not be one of us, that is, of the secular scientific worldview, but might actually be someone who believes in a Creator. That would be absolutely forbidden, absolutely unacceptable. And even in an article in which it just may have been a translation problem, it just may not have been. And that’s enough to set the entire academic world into an abject controversy.
We need to note with care that the article nowhere made any actual argument for either creationism or intelligent design. All it did—or actually in translation might have done—was to use the word “Creator” and that is simply too far, too much, far too much in order for the scientific community to be at peace. It was immediately up in arms, sending out researchers, as it were, to look at websites trying to find if there just might be a link tying even one of these researchers to a Christian church, which would after all mean we have a problem here in terms of the scientific community. This is a break in terms of scientific orthodoxy, the orthodoxy of the modern naturalistic materialistic worldview, a worldview that is evidently so treasured and yet apparently so fragile that even using the word “Creator” in a scientific article—even by accident in mistranslation—is simply a bridge too far.
You know, it is interesting that a society that doesn’t believe that theological heresy is even plausible or possible anymore certainly has a very strong idea of what scientific heresy looks like, even when it’s found in just one word. But for just a moment, maybe we need to pause and understand that they got it right, at least from their worldview or perspective. If indeed they allow the word “Creator” even to be used even in mistranslation in a scientific article, that breaks the entire edifice of the secular worldview. If you even raise the possibility that there is a Creator, that changes everything, because it changes the entire worldview. As Christians understand, the worldview begins by answering the question, why is there something rather than nothing? And that’s where the Scripture begins,
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
If you even use the word “Creator,” even by accident, why that’s a huge problem. That’s an abject heresy in the world of modern science. One scientist years ago in the pages of the New York Review of Books said that we had to be very careful, speaking of the scientific community, not even to allow God a foot in the door. Well, here you see that kind of argument, and you see the ideological kind of conformity that is demanded. You can’t even err by a single word, not if that word is “Creator,” even if that word was mistranslated.
Rise of antisemitism on the academic Left reveals our inability to learn from the past
Next, staying on the theme of the American college and university campus, there was a very important article published this week in the pages of the New York Times. Columnist Roger Cohen writes about the rise of anti-Semitism now amongst the American left. Writing from London, Cohen writes,
“Last month, a co-chairman of the Oxford University Labour Club, Alex Chalmers, quit in protest at what he described as rampant anti-Semitism among members. A ‘large proportion’ of the club ‘and the student left in Oxford more generally have some kind of problem with Jews,’ he said in a statement.”
—even coming down to language with a word of derision being used against Jewish students on the campus of Oxford University—an insult originally used, says Cohen, by the Ku Klux Klan, an insult now routinely used in public at Oxford University in order to identify Jews with Zionism and Zionism with racism. Cohen then writes,
“The zeitgeist on campuses these days, on both sides of the Atlantic, is one of identity and liberation politics. Jews, of course, are a minority, but through a fashionable cultural prism they are seen as the minority that isn’t — that is to say white, privileged and identified with an “imperialist-colonialist” state, Israel. They are the anti-victims in a prevalent culture of victimhood; Jews, it seems, are the sole historical victim whose claim is dubious.”
The really frightening reality behind this article is a rise of anti-Semitism, and it’s being found in liberal circles on college and university campuses to be sure, perhaps most prominently, but also many leftist circles in politics on both sides of the Atlantic. Take for example the changing position on Israel and the Democratic Party as reflected in its presidential primaries. Ever since its establishment in 1948, the state of Israel has been understood not only as the sole Democratic ally of the United States throughout these decades in the Middle East, but as a crucial part of American foreign-policy, a crucial friend, a friend to whom the United States owes much and is owed much in terms of a reciprocity of relationship. The special relationship between the United States and Israel is now very much threatened by the political left. Simon Schama, a very well-known British historian, argued in the Financial Times,
“The Israel of 1948 came into being as a result of the “centuries-long dehumanization of the Jews.”
That is a very accurate statement. Israel was established by action of the United Nations in an official declaration, an official action of the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust explicitly as a way of creating a Jewish homeland that would secure the future existence and identity of the Jewish people. But now that is being accused as racism in terms of the academic left. Cohen is himself a liberal columnist, and the New York Times is a liberal paper, and both Cohen and the Times appear to be quite concerned. Cohen writes,
“I talked to Aaron Simons, an Oxford student who was president of the university’s Jewish society. ‘There’s an odd mental noise,’ he said. ‘In tone and attitude the way you are talked to as a Jew in these left political circles reeks of hostility. These people have an astonishingly high bar for what constitutes anti-Semitism.’”
Here again, we see the importance of worldview. We see the danger of ideology, and we see the very real truth that ideas have consequences. And for the state of Israel, these could be very dangerous consequences indeed. But in terms of the moral horrors of the 20th century, you would expect that at least Western civilization had learned how to recognize and avoid anti-Semitism, to condemn it in absolute terms. But now we’re told that it is experiencing a resurgence in the academic left in particular on both sides of the Atlantic. Any way you look at it, that’s really, really bad news.
While Britain's aristocracy attempted to preserve a culture, America's is tearing one down
This past week, we now finally marked the end of six seasons of Downton Abbey. I’ve written an article about what’s missing from Downton Abbey, and that’s an understanding presented in the program of the vast process of secularization that was even then taking place in one sense. Representing Downton Abbey from the years 1912 to 1925, the series does misrepresent the role of religion in British life and even in a family such as the Crawley family living in Downton Abbey. But what I find in retrospect in the popularity of this program in the United States is the fact that many Americans are wondering what was so interesting about the program. Was it the costumes? Was it the characters? Was it a period piece soap opera? In one sense, I think it was because what we were watching there was an aristocracy. Americans were looking at an aristocracy, an aristocracy established by heredity, an aristocracy headed by the Earl of Grantham who was himself a defender of a moral order, a very benevolent defender of a moral order that even he had to understand by the end of the series was passing away. Why do I bring this up now? It’s because the other thing I want us to note is that, whether or not we believe in an hereditary aristocracy—Americans by Constitution do not—every society does have an aristocracy, an aristocracy of one form or another. In the United States, we moved to an aristocracy of pop culture, of pop singers, of entertainers, of actors and others. We may pride ourselves and think ourselves as having outgrown an aristocracy or an age of aristocrats, but the reality is, every society has an aristocracy of its own. One thing we need to note with the end of Downton Abbey is that we have shifted from aristocracy that attempted to perpetuate a culture and the fundamentals and the worldview of that culture to an aristocracy that now attempts to tear it down and to eliminate it. We have in modern, postmodern America an aristocracy to be sure, but an aristocracy without the manners of Downton Abbey.