Science / Engineering / Mathematics

Essay on how 'Big Bang Theory' shapes the way the public views higher education

The most famous of us all are not real. True, scholars such as Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer were once recognized by almost any sector of the American public.  In fact, they were so well-recognized that Einstein’s hair and Oppenheimer’s pork pie hat were alone representative of their celebrity.

A theoretical physicist, an astrophysicist, an applied physicist, and an engineer are now arguably as well recognized as the Einsteins and Oppenheimers of days past.  The problem is that these men, Sheldon Cooper, Rajesh Koothrappali, Leonard Hofstadter, and Howard Walowitz, are not real. They are, in fact, the stars of CBS’s "The Big Bang Theory. "

Just how popular are the show and its stars? "The Big Bang Theory" begins its seventh season tonight and frequently rode atop Nielsen’s weekly ratings for sitcoms in past years. Beyond sheer volume of viewers, "The Big Bang Theory" has also garnered a wide variety of awards. This year alone, for example, the show was nominated for eight Emmys and took home top honors for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series (Jim Parsons, a.k.a. Sheldon Cooper) and Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series (Bob Newhart, a.k.a. Arthur Jeffries/Professor Proton).

Like a number of current sitcoms, the male protagonists are portrayed as being afflicted by variant strands of perpetual adolescence. If they are not working, they are playing online role games, hanging out at a comic book store, or ingesting successive waves of takeout. Of course, a sitcom must include a subplot of ongoing sexual frustration, and "The Big Bang Theory" does not disappoint. The lone exception is the theoretical physicist who views "coitus" – as he calls it – as a mere distraction from his work.  

Given the show’s appeal, what, if anything, does it tell us about the American public’s views of the academic vocation? Speaking on behalf of what the American public thinks is risky, but I fear we all may already know the answer — they find the show humorous because it, in part, correlates to opinions they already hold.  

For example, in one of the final episodes from last season, entitled "Tenure Turbulence," a tenured slot comes open in the physics department when a colleague dies. When discussing the possibility, the theoretical physicist with coitus avoidus, Sheldon, claims "a guaranteed job for life only encourages the faculty to become complacent." The astrophysicist, Rajesh, argues "people do their best work when they feel safe and secure." Regardless, they all initially agree whoever among them receives tenure should do so because of his ability to do the work, not because of faculty politics.      

Events then spin out of control as each one of them seeks to one-up the other in an arms race of university politics. The target for their outlandish behavior is Mrs. Davies, a member of the human resources office serving on the tenure committee. Leonard risks being placed on a stalker watchlist by making his way into the previously unexplored territory of the wellness center simply to “schmooze” Mrs. Davies while she exercises. Raj sends her a self-made video touting his academic abilities dating back to his early childhood. Not to be outdone, Sheldon provides Mrs. Davies, an African-American, with the DVD box set of "Roots."

Just when you think you have seen it all, the most outlandish behavior comes just prior to the deceased colleague’s funeral. Standing in the hallway, each one of them becomes aware of the depraved lengths the others will go in this political game. Sheldon asks his girlfriend, Amy, to remind him that an appropriate emotional response to a funeral is sadness. Perennially incapable of speaking to women, Raj is left to rely on alcohol to help him be more assertive.    

Despite their antics, Mrs. Davies recommends all three candidates for further review as a result of their considerable credentials. In a mere half-hour, however, a number of possible cultural stereotypes of the life of university faculty members are brought to light. One possible stereotype held by the larger public has to do with skepticism over the possibility of someone having access to a job for life. The second has to do with how such a job is earned.

Unfortunately, the best available data confirms the existence of both forms of skepticism. Although somewhat dated but arguably still the most authoritative of its kind, Neil Gross and Solon Simmons conducted a survey of "Americans’ Views of Political Bias in the Academy and Academic Freedom" back in 2006 for the AAUP.  A more recent iteration of this line of work is now found in Neil Gross’s Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (Harvard University Press, 2013).

In general, Gross and Simmons found "Americans are generally supportive of the tenure system.... At the same time, about 80.7 percent think that tenure sometimes protects incompetent faculty, while 57.9 percent believe that giving professors tenure takes away their incentive to work hard." As a result, "only about 17.9 percent of respondents say the tenure system should remain as it is.”

In six-going-on-seven seasons, tenure is but one of the important issues portrayed in episodes of "The Big Bang Theory."  Part of the reason why we laugh, though, is the way it mirrors views held by the American public and possibly by even some of us. Tenure and other practices like it are too critical to the work we do to be unquestioningly portrayed in such a manner.

The challenge facing us, those of us who are real, is how our efforts persistently challenge such perceptions. Perhaps one day a sitcom will climb the Nielsen ratings portraying tenure as a practice so revered that it inspires nothing but the highest devotion to teaching, research, and service.              

 

Todd C. Ream is professor of higher education at Taylor University and a research fellow with the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University.  He (along with Drew Moser) is currently working on a cultural biography of Ernest L. Boyer.

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Essay on whether academic freedom protects teaching of 'junk science'

Ball State University is embroiled in controversy over a course offered by its physics and astronomy department, called "The Boundaries of Science." The Freedom From Religion Foundation has complained that the course isn’t science but religious indoctrination, and that because Ball State is a public university, offering the course violates the church-state separation required by the First Amendment. Others say it’s an exercise in academic freedom. In fact, it is probably neither.

Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in "creation science" may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog.

But what if the department decides not to? Does teaching the course at a public university violate the constitutional mandate prohibiting an "establishment of religion," as it indisputably would if offered at a public high school? There’s little case law on this question — probably because there aren’t many public universities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.

The traditional formula for deciding whether a government program violates the Establishment Clause is the so-called "Lemon test," derived from a 1971 Supreme Court case, and asking three questions: whether the program has a secular purpose; whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion; and whether it results in excessive government entanglement with religion. More recently, the Supreme Court has used two other tests: whether the program amounts to government endorsement of religion, and whether it is coercive. The coercion inquiry is particularly relevant to prayers and religion courses in public schools: where a prayer is mandatory, it forces students to recite beliefs they don’t necessarily hold, and where a course is mandatory, it subjects them to unwanted indoctrination.

In 1972, a federal court of appeals struck down a chapel-attendance mandate at a collegiate military academy, even though no one was required to attend the academy (unlike a public school) and even though cadets could be excused from the chapel requirement (Anderson v. Laird). In two later cases, on the other hand, courts allowed graduation prayers at public universities on the theory that there was no coercion, there was a secular purpose (to "solemnize public occasions"), there was no primarily religious effect because "an audience of college-educated adults" — unlike school children — was not likely to be unduly influenced, and there was no excessive entanglement with religion (Tanford v. Brand and Chaudhuri v. Tennessee). But in a 2003 case, another court ruled that a supper prayer at the Virginia Military Institute did violate the Establishment Clause because the students were "plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise" (Mellen v. Bunting).

Then there was the strange case of a group in Nassau County, New York, which challenged a "Human Sexuality" course at the local community college because, they claimed, it "proselytizes against the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic and advocates an anti-religious sexual ethic to replace it." The judge found no endorsement of religion, a secular purpose, and nothing implicating any other prong of the Lemon test (Gheta v. Nassau County Community College).

How might these somewhat inconsistent precedents apply to "The Boundaries of Science"? There is no coercion because nobody has to attend Ball State or enroll in the course. There’s little likelihood that reasonable observers would think the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. On the contrary, a basic tenet of academic freedom is that professors don’t necessarily speak for the university — indeed, they should be free to speak out against its policies. There’s little chance of entanglement with religion, and although it might be difficult to discern a secular purpose, and the primary effect might be religious, on balance, the courts would probably not find this dubious course to violate the Establishment Clause.

Academic freedom, as a matter of First Amendment right at public universities, protects both the institution and the individual professor. The Supreme Court has noted the potential for conflict between the two. In the case of Ball State, though, the question is one of professional competence, and the institution, through its faculty committees, gets to decide whether "The Boundaries of Science" meets this standard.  If it is religion masquerading as science, it clearly doesn’t, regardless of whether it violates the Establishment Clause.

A case from the University of Alabama in 1991 supports this conclusion. Students complained that a professor of physiology was engaging in religious proselytizing in class. The university told him to stop; the professor claimed a violation of his academic freedom. The federal court of appeals acknowledged that, as the Supreme Court had recognized years before, teachers’ academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment," but in the end ruled that the university was within its rights in restricting the professor’s classroom speech. The court did not reach the question of whether religious proselytizing in a public university class violates the Establishment Clause (Bishop v. Aronov).

In the case of "The Boundaries of Science," the right of the Ball State administration to decide on the course’s overall scientific validity is even stronger than the University of Alabama’s claim of authority to restrict a professor’s occasional in-class proselytizing. The point is that these are educational decisions for the university to make, and absent a violation of the Establishment Clause, outside political interference is dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.

Marjorie Heins is the author of Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge (New York University Press).

 

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