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The Professor’S Paroxysm
A scholar's attack on a student writer--and academic freedom.


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Legal philosopher Brian Leiter of the University of Texas is a self-proclaimed disciple of Nietzsche who fiercely champions a Darwinian materialist vision of the world from his weblog, The Leiter Reports. Having a blog on which to hold forth about the rights and wrongs of the world without the benefit of an editor doesn’t make Leiter unique or particularly noteworthy, but one of his other sidelines does. Leiter is the author of The Philosophical Gourmet Report which ranks graduate philosophy programs “in the English-speaking world.” His rankings are respected and followed. Accordingly, Leiter is a powerful figure in the academy who is invited to speak by peers who may find him personally objectionable but too important to offend or ignore. The respect for his rankings has perhaps caused him to place a correspondingly high value on his opinion in other matters, which is the only explanation for the story I’m about to tell.

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Writing for the January 2004 issue of the Harvard Law Review, student editor Lawrence VanDyke gave scholar Francis Beckwith’s book, Law, Darwinism, & Public Education, a positive review. The book makes constitutional arguments for the potential acceptability of including intelligent-design arguments in high-school science curricula. VanDyke found Beckwith’s arguments convincing and said so in his book note.

Such a sin could not go unpunished or unpublicized by those who hold to the inerrancy of the Darwinian scriptures. The Book of Scopes, 2:12-14 reads, “Thou shalt not admit that any explanation of origins outside the neo-Darwinian synthesis may have merit. Verily, thou must proclaim that any alternate explanation is of the same religious origin as witch burning and will be struck down by the Establishment Clause before ever being discussed in a public school.”

VanDyke’s temerity in giving prime real estate in one of America’s most respected legal publications to Beckwith’s work was particularly galling to Brian Leiter. Intelligent design? Francis Beckwith? In the Harvard Law Review? It was all too much for Leiter, which may be why he risked his prestige to make this petty, but deadly serious attack on VanDyke:

The author of this incompetent book note . . . is one Lawrence VanDyke, a student editor of the Review. Mr. VanDyke may yet have a fine career as a lawyer, but I trust he has no intention of entering law teaching: scholarly fraud is, I fear, an inauspicious beginning for an aspiring law teacher. And let none of the many law professors who are readers of this site be mistaken: Mr. VanDyke has perpetrated a scholarly fraud, one that may have political and pedagogical consequences (italics mine).
One doesn’t need to work very hard to read between the lines. Leiter seems to be threatening VanDyke’s career if he should dare to set foot in the academy. The tone of his post makes clear that he means this student editor of the Harvard Law Review harm. Leiter’s statement is the equivalent of an academic temper tantrum and is likely to backfire. The attack by a high-powered academic on an intellectually open law student is not the stuff of which great reputations are made. Leiter’s peers, some of whom may actually have believed all the hype about academic freedom, will probably wonder just how this sort of proposed blacklisting squares with long-cherished ideals.

Francis Beckwith, who has been the object of attacks by Leiter before, is shocked the University of Texas professor would respond to a student’s work so uncharitably. Beckwith expresses appreciation for Leiter’s scholarly work, but adds, “Leiter’s apparent intention to employ his own celebrity and academic stature to crush a young man’s spirit and his future job prospects in the legal academy, and to do so by means of blacklisting and mean-spirited McCarthyesque intimidation tactics, is absolutely unjustified.”

For his part, VanDyke is not backtracking. He defends the substance of his book note and charges that Leiter’s attack represents “an effort to make sure all students recognize that if they step outside the bounds of Leiter’s orthodoxy, their careers will be in serious jeopardy.” He adds, “This is pretty amazing considering my book note actually talks about the ‘hostility and censorship of the evolutionary establishment.’ If anything, Mr. Leiter acts as if it his goal to prove me correct.”

Unless he gets his temper under control, Brian Leiter won’t continue to have the influence in the academy he currently enjoys. Threatening the career of a young law student because he dared to differ is a sorry spectacle. Let’s hope a chastened Leiter will get a lesson in freedom of inquiry and expression from his fellows and then will be man enough to apologize to the promising student whose destruction he proposed.

Hunter Baker is a freelance writer in Texas.



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