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Freedom to think

By Steven Schwartz - posted Friday, 14 January 2022

Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor at Portland State University, published hoax articles in academic journals to demonstrate the vacuity of gender studies and related disciplines. After an investigation, his university deemed him guilty of research misconduct. Boghossian resigned his position.

The Royal Society of New Zealand is currently investigating one of its members, Garth Cooper, a professor at the University of Auckland. Cooper criticised a proposal to give Maori origin myths the same weight as science in the school curriculum. Cooper acknowledged that indigenous history, culture and beliefs enrich the lives of all New Zealanders. He agreed that school curricula should incorporate indigenous perspectives, but Cooper did not consider these traditional ideas equivalent to physics, biology, and chemistry.

Thousands of academics, students and others signed an "open letter" condemning Cooper and some of his colleagues for causing "untold harm and hurt." The New Zealand Association of Scientists, the Royal Society of New Zealand, even the academics' union denounced Cooper's views. When a small number of members of the Royal Society complained about him, the Society appointed a committee to investigate him.


In an email to university staff, the vice-chancellor of the University of Auckland noted that Cooper's ideas "caused considerable hurt and dismay among staff, students and alumni." She claimed to have discovered "major problems with some of our colleagues." The vice-chancellor has since moderated her rhetoric, acknowledging that defending science is what the public-and universities-expect scientists to do.

It seems that the biblical injunction, "He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind" (Proverbs, 11: 29-31), is entirely apposite to modern higher education. Universities are allowing academics and students to chip away their moral foundations. And everyone knows, without a strong foundation, any structure will eventually collapse.

Inherit the Wind is also the name of an allegorical movie based on the famous Scopes "monkey" trial in which an American school teacher faced prosecution for teaching evolution. In the film, the teacher on trial begins to buckle under the strain. His community and family have turned against him; even his fiancé wants him to reject evolution and accept the biblical version of creation. The teacher's lawyer, played by Spencer Tracey, tells his client how easy it would be to put the entire matter to rest. All you have to do is give in, he says. Tell your accusers that you will think the way they want you to think, and say what they want you to say. All of your problems will vanish.

The teacher is morally unable to comply. Rather than abandon his beliefs, he decides to fight. His lawyer explains his client's decision to the court. He says that the trial is not only about evolution; it is about the freedom to think. If a school board bans topics from the schools today, it could be a crime to write about them tomorrow. Books may be banned and newspapers censored; independent thinking would become illegal.

Universities face a fatal choice. They can acquiesce to the demands of censorious staff and students or reject intolerance and bullying by reaffirming their traditional enlightenment values.

Author Flannery O'Connor admonishes us to "Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you." Let's hope our universities share her view; the future of higher education depends on it.

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This article was first published on Wiser Every Day.

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About the Author

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz AM is the former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University (Sydney), Murdoch University (Perth), and Brunel University (London).

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