March 25, 2004
In a thought-provoking talk, Steve Randak ’69 defined a dilemma facing science educators and suggested how Wabash can "help us track our way through an uncertain future." Two edited excerpts:
We have nearly reached the critical mass of our population size. We live in the shadow of climate disruption, new and old plagues, ethnic and religious hatred, and the greatest mass extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs.
To survive, we must objectively study human nature and Nature in general. To successfully accomplish this study we must employ the idea of biological evolution. There is no idea that is more important to the understanding of life and no idea better supported. Yet many students and parents see evolution as the most controversial and dangerous idea. Despite the importance of evolution, most high school biology teachers don’t teach it, or they teach it as a reduced separate unit, not as the central and unifying theme of biology. You can hardly blame them. There is little or no support to do otherwise. Where can we look for support? It is much easier to tell you where not to look . . . .
Christian fundamentalists fear that Darwin’s idea will unravel the moral and social fabric of America. They want to legislate the teaching of religious doctrine in the science classroom under the guise of "creation science" and with the introduction of the concept of "intelligent design."
You might think that the secular left is more likely to embrace Darwin’s idea. Yet many liberals think struggles between rival scientific ideas are decided by sociopolitical power, not evidence, and that male, white, Western science has been used to suppress women, minorities, and workers.
With political suspicion on the left and fear of social and moral chaos on the right, who will stand up for evolutionary biology and insist that it be taught in public schools without censorship or dilution?
In Moravia 24,000 years ago, the first permanent village of about 100 people appeared, allowing for the development of experts. Specialists made warmer clothes, sharper tools, and stronger shelters. The people prospered; their way of life spread. We stepped out of the Stone Age and we stride into the future on the shoulders of specialists. But, in our addiction to specialists, have we lost sight of the wider perspective?
An education from Wabash creates a generalist. A liberal education frees us, empowers us, and prepares us for those moments that define our lives. Through it we become persistent and patient agents of cultural transmission and change within our democracy. A liberal education permits us to have important conversations with those that came before and it helps us explore the big questions across a wide variety of knowledge and experience.
To track our way through an uncertain future, we will need a long list of specialists from every conceivable field. But, we will also need individuals who have a wider vision of the world, who cross-examine their own reality, who engage in real inquiry, and who are driven to ask the big questions like: "What is the Nature of Man?" and "What is our place in the World?"
It is the responsibility of places like Wabash to insure that we don’t run out of these thoughtful generalists.
Contact Steve Randak at: firstname.lastname@example.org.