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Joseph Loconte

Faith, Dogma, and Academic Freedom

The problem with narrow-minded openness

Forty years ago, Richard Hofstadter dismembered the opponents of freedom of thought in his Pulitzer Prize-winning work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Evangelical Protestants, with their emotional revivals, were ranked as prime offenders. "The nature of the evangelical spirit itself no doubt made the evangelical revival anti-intellectual," he wrote, "but American conditions provided a particularly liberating milieu for its anti-intellectual impulse."1 By the 19th century, Hofstadter argued, this impulse would reach across denominational lines, weakening the importance of liberal education for generations of believers.

At first glance, the recent dispute over accreditation for Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, an evangelical college that requires the teaching of six-day creationism, might suggest that not much has changed. The dust hasn't yet settled over last year's decision by an national accreditor to withhold approval. Officials at Patrick Henry insist that debate must always be balanced by dogma, while critics describe the school's loyalty oath, demanding that faculty adhere to a "Statement of Biblical Worldview," as an obstacle to academic freedom. The accrediting body, the American Academy for Liberal Education (AALE), ruled that the oath controls curricula and teaching in a way that "inhibits the acquistion of basic knowledge." Specifically, the organization doubted that students would learn basic science.

Patrick Henry launched a noisy counteroffensive, calling the judgment "tainted with religious discrimination." College President Michael Farris said the accrediting body denied the school's right to believe differently from the norms of academia. "I think we are victims of the evolutionist thought police," he complained. The college immediately challenged the ruling, sending the issue to the AALE's Board of Directors.

Following a review, the board agreed in November to grant the school "pre-accreditation" status—the first step to full academic ...

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