Teaching a class about intelligent design and other "religion mythologies" may be true to the principle of academic freedom, but placing itself in a philosophical standoff with religious conservatives in state government might not be the best strategy for Kansas University right now.
The chairman of KU's department of religious studies announced this week that he would teach a class next semester titled, "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." Heated reaction from conservative legislators and intelligent design proponents was swift in coming.
"Why poke a stick in somebody's eye if you don't have to?" said State Sen. Kay O'Connor, an Olathe Republican who is known for raising questions about women needing to vote and other controversial issues.
It's difficult to tell in this debate who is doing most of the poking. It's true that, in announcing his new class at KU, Paul Mirecki noted that "The KU faculty has had enough." It might have been more politic not to portray the class as a direct reaction to the recent controversy on the State Board of Education, but in the minds of many Kansans, proponents of intelligent design and state board members fired the first volley by seeking to discredit evolutionary science.
And although John Calvert, an attorney and managing director of the Intelligent Design Network in Johnson County, declared Mirecki's class "will go down in history as one of the laughingstocks of the century," many observers think the state school board already has a lock on the laughingstock title.
Nonetheless, the conservatives have a strong hold on the Kansas Legislature right now, and the suggestion that KU might suffer financial consequences if it is perceived as being disrespectful of conservative values may not be an idle threat.
KU Provost David Shulenburger was quick to jump into the conversation and clarify the academic usage of the word "mythology" as "the common use of stories or rituals to symbolize in a meaningful manner the core beliefs of a religion." Mirecki further clarified: "Mythologies are important but they do not address scientific solutions:"
In an e-mail to his colleagues that later was circulated among some state legislators and others, Mirecki referred to "the fundies" (presumably fundamentalist Christians) and said his class would be "a nice slap in their big fat face." Mirecki's unwise e-mail only confirms that the class was at least partially motivated by a desire to insult those who support the concept of intelligent design.
If properly presented, a KU course has the potential to shed some light on this troublesome issue. It's unfortunate, however, that the new offering is being perceived, and indeed apparently was intended, as a means to perpetuate the "stick in the eye" standoff between Kansas conservatives and the state's flagship university.