This academic year may be pivotal for Cornell University (a school at which I spent half a year doing research on probability theory back in 1986) as its president just spent nearly the whole of his State of the University Address speaking about intelligent design:
Now, with the well-organized, resolute intelligent design movement, the issue is back again. What adds urgency to this iteration of the dispute is the fact that this country is so polarized, both culturally and politically. When we divide ourselves into Ã¢â‚¬Å“Red StatesÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“Blue StatesÃ¢â‚¬Â; into the people who watch Fox News and those who watch PBS; into Ã¢â‚¬Å“people of faithÃ¢â‚¬Â and Ã¢â‚¬Å“secular humanists,Ã¢â‚¬Â when ciphers substitute for nuanced ideas, is it any wonder that this debate now concerns matters as fundamental as what we teach in our primary and secondary schools, what academic standards universities require, and what rhetoric candidates adopt in political races? When ideological division replaces informed exchange, dogma is the result and education suffers.
And if we are honest, we have to admit that many of us in universities have contributed to the polarization that afflicts the country as a whole. President Emeritus Frank Rhodes, writing in 1982 at the height of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“creationismÃ¢â‚¬Â debates, noted that Ã¢â‚¬Å“both fundamentalist advocates and some popular scientists claim an extension of their area of authority which is logically illegitimate. The fundamentalists offer an old doctrine of scriptural infallibility, improperly disguised as science; the scientists offer an old doctrine of materialism, equally improperly disguised as scienceÃ¢â‚¬Â¦. Each, in its increasingly intemperate pronouncements, is guilty of intellectual imperialism.Ã¢â‚¬Â 9
Today, as Glenn Altschuler, CornellÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Litwin Professor of American Studies, has noted, we continue to have scientific imperialists who believe that only science can be looked to for answers to all answerable questions and that those areas where science cannot provide answers are unimportant. And we have religious imperialists who assert that all questions are appropriately directed to faith-based sources for answers.
I want to suggest that universities like Cornell can make a valuable contribution to the nationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s cultural and intellectual discourse. With a breadth of expertise that embraces the humanities and the social sciences as well as science and technology, we need to be engaging issues like evolution and intelligent design both internally, in the classroom, in the residential houses, and in campus-wide debates, and also externally by making our voices heard in the spheres of public policy and politics.
[For the whole speech, go here.]