Wednesday, June 14, 2006

God and Man at CU-Boulder

While wandering around my alma mater's website, I came across this account from a symposium of professors giving advice to new students:

Bill Krantz told the story of going to see his undergrad advisor the first week at college. The advisor happened to be Jewish and noticed all the Catholic schools Bill had attended. The advisor told him that they didn't get many Catholic students in the engineering school because Catholic students couldn't separate science from religion.

This example of jaw-dropping bigotry has been percolating in my mind for a week. Had I been that undergraduate, with the same formation I had at eighteen, I would have just walked out in a stupefied daze, as if slapped. With nearly a decade of further education under my belt, I could have rattled off to this advisor all the great Catholic scientists. I could have appealed to Thomistic philosophy as a great synthesis between secular knowledge and religious faith. I also could have cited my family history--I would have been the third generation in the family to enter a science career, and my grandmother, a chemistry major, was one of the first co-eds at St. Louis University.

What I could not have done was what the future Professor Krantz did, namely unquestionably accept his professor's opinion as valid:

Bill couldn't get that thought out of his mind for many years. Up to that point he had gotten good grades and didn't question anything. That comment changed his life. "I decided to do something that reminded me every day of what I am not doing creatively, " Bill said. "I will ask a question at every lecture I go to."

Now in the advisor's defense, there are some very poorly-formed Catholics out there who have been co-opted by Evangelical fideism and take an irrationalist approach to both religion and science. But these kinds of insults are hardly a way to encourage more Catholic science students. My own budding science career was cut short by an inability or perhaps unwillingness to abandon the concept of infinitessimals, a crippling attitude for someone studying introductory calculus. Likewise, I was distracted by the call of the Classics department. Had I a similar advisor, the move might have been made even sooner.

This anecdote reminds me that allegations of bias are only mostly useless. They are always voiced by those who possess a decent vocabulary but lack the formation to outright refute the position of their putatively biased target, or at least offer a viable alternative point of view. Sometimes people are trapped in mere bias-cataloguing, never enjoying the necessary intellectual formation for deeper argument. Sometimes accusations of bias are only defense-mechanisms for those trapped in untenable positions. But sometimes awareness of bias really does keep a poorly-educated person from abandoning a truth he cannot fully explain for a lie popular among his superiors.

At the beginning of the Ward Churchill debacle, CU-Boulder's president opportunistically invoked the memory of George Norlin's defense of academic freedom. Norlin specifically defended both Jews and Catholics from a state government dominated by the Ku Klux Klan. At that time I attempted to discover the statistical breakdown of religious adherents among CU faculty. My sad suspicion is that there were more Catholics on the payroll in Norlin's day than there are today. However, such statistics appear not to be kept and I am glad to have abandoned this idle cause for other pursuits. Nevertheless, it is regrettable that the campus diversity police decline to cause a ruckus over religious variety because a challenge to the secularist hegemony on campus is long overdue.

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