24 April 2007

Creationism comes to Dartmouth

With the onset of the Dartmouth College trustee election, creationism has found its way into college politics. Trustee candidate Stephen Smith '88 is a Roman Catholic who has in the past been harshly (and ignorantly) critical of evolution and science education. In a recent editorial in "The Dartmouth," Professor Roger Sloboda exposed Smith's anti-science slant:

As a member of the faculty of the department of biological sciences at Dartmouth College, I find many of the comments made by Smith in this article not only scientifically incorrect but also personally offensive. Smith appears unsupportive of College faculty in general, unsupportive of science in particular and unsupportive of the theory of evolution, the linchpin of modern biology.
I had thought that that would be the last word on Stephen Smith. A few subsequent editorials echoed some of Prof Sloboda's criticisms, giving me hope in the scientific integrity of Dartmouth.

But last night, the campus conservative paper "The Dartmouth Review" released its latest issue, featuring an endorsement of Smith. Smith's campaign seems primarily focused on putting academics above administration. It's a commendable goal in principle, wanting to provide a better education, but given Smith's previous attitude toward science, I doubt he would direct the same benefits toward the Biology department as he might (for instance) toward his majors, History and Philosophy. Especially worrisome is his comment in the TDR interview:

To my mind, a College is a place where student education comes first, and that needs to be the reality at Dartmouth, and it's not going to be the reality if instructors are given all sorts of incentives to spend their most productive time on research outside of the classroom. Students need to be the focus of professors. That's not to say there shouldn't be research; it's to say that nothing should trump the importance of educating the students at a place that truly is a College.
Such a statement isn't terribly damning off the bat, but it does merit further discussion. I hope Smith realizes how critical research is both to attracting the greatest minds in the fields and to giving students experience in practical applications of what they learn. I have personally never felt my education suffer as a result of a professor's research. Quite the opposite, in fact.

To be fair, Smith's anti-science article was written about ten years ago. It's possible that he has since changed his mind, but I have yet to see any indication to that effect.

This should serve as a warning: the threat of creationism to legitimate science education is not isolated to the occasional Kentucky school district. It is here at an Ivy League college. We need to be ready to handle it.


Ben said...

One of my best professors here once bet me that my best lecturers were probably the ones she saw as doing the most and best research. Turned out to be true of the Religion department - but I can imagine it would be different for the sciences. When I was still in CompSci, we had a prof who was all about his research and as a result barely remembered to come to class and never really bothered to teach. It all depends on whether your research makes you more engaged and interested in your field, or makes you so narrowly focused and distracted that you lose sight of teaching students about the bigger picture.

But yes - on the subject of Smith's latent creationist tendencies, I weep for the future of Dartmouth if he's elected. When we start losing the universities - the last safe haven of secularist rationalists - then we know we're in serious trouble.

Anonymous said...

Actually Smith supports the theory of evolution and is not a creationist. He has said this publicly. R. Sloboda was lazily using heuristics to determine Smith's beliefs.

Aaron said...

Can you give a citation for that, Anonymous? I hadn't been able to find much on Smith's stance one way or the other, apart from the given article.