Someone recently sent me a copy of an August 11 blog by Ed Brayton, a journalist and speaker who generally focuses on scientific issues. Brayton had come across the course requirements for several courses taught by “Intelligent Design” (ID) advocate William Dembski, and got a real chuckle from several elements of the course descriptions, including a requirement that students post at least 10 comments totaling 2,000 words on “hostile” websites, i.e., websites that favor an evolutionary approach to understanding life on earth.
An unfortunate aspect of the post is that Brayton apparently misread the web page on which Dembski puffs his courses, several of which appear to be largely the same course under different names: the three courses Brayton panned were not taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), where Dembski is “Research Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Center for Cultural Engagement,” but courses offered at Southern Evangelical Seminary (SES), an independent fundamentalist school in Charlotte that lists Dembski as an adjunct professor.
SES offers lots of online courses, some of which are apparently quite light on the requirements end. It’s not accredited by the standard, rigorous agencies like the Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SACS) or the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), but by the “Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools.” A look at its list of member institutions reveals a number of small Christian schools and diploma mills, largely of the fundamentalist and online variety. So, one wouldn’t expect the coursework there to be overly demanding.
Dembski’s own description of the courses he teaches (if “teaches” is an appropriate term here) for SES don’t mention any lectures or classwork. By his description, the undergraduate course requires only that students take a final exam, write a 3,000 word essay on Intelligent Design, and post the aforementioned defenses of ID on “hostile” websites. Students in the “Masters” level course must also write a 1,500-2,000 word review of Francis Collins’ The Language of God. “Doctor of Ministry” students drop the blog post requirement and develop a lesson plan for teaching Dembski’s book Understanding Intelligent Design.
Skimpy requirements, I know, but that’s the way many online courses from non-traditional schools without standard accreditation are.
A similar course Dembski teaches in the undergraduate “College at Southwestern” (which is accredited by SACS) is more demanding: students are assigned five textbooks, they prepare precis statements for each class, they have a midterm and a final exam, their review of Collins’ book must be 500 words longer, and their 10 posts to “hostile” websites must total 3,000 words, instead of 2,000. An interesting aspect of Demski’s syllabus is that those requirements are called “positive,” while class participation, pop quizzes, and a one-page “executive summary of YOU (with a clearly recognizable picture of yourself)” are described as “negative.” Apparently some requirements add points, while others subtract: one hand giveth, the other taketh away.
Some may find it surprising that Dembski would make interacting with “hostile” websites an integral part of his course, but one has to remember the context. Both SES (which focuses aggressively on apologetics) and SWBTS (where Dembski leads the “Richard Land Center for Cultural Engagement“) are in the business of training up conservative Christian culture warriors. One doesn’t do that by promoting objective learning and independent critical thinking, but by hammering home firm principles to be accepted in the heart and advocated in the public square.
That may sound more like indoctrination than education, but in Christian fundamentalist circles, including the revamped Southern Baptist schools, that’s just the way it is. When a school believes it has a corner on the truth, there’s no point in encouraging students think for themselves.