GUARDING THE MIDDLE GROUND
by Jason Matthew Smith, Editor
With a little planning and a certain degree of favor from the publishing gods, an issue of Continuum will infuriate, agitate, or prod a reader into dropping us a line. In some cases, I’m talking about more than just touching a nerve—I mean a complete intellectual root canal.
Such was the case with the summer 2005 issue in which we featured a couple of articles with an evolutionary (as in Darwinian) bent, most notably philosophy professor Anya Plutynski’s opinion piece “Darwin or Designer Intelligence?” about recent clashes between science and Intelligent Design (creationism, more or less) in the teaching of biology within the nation’s classrooms.
Professor Emeritus Richard E. Turley, Sr. BS’55 MS’58 sent us a letter taking us to task for what he deemed was our complicity in fanning the flames of the debate and further driving a wedge between pro- and anti-Darwinians. “Why do intelligent human beings have to be polarized into two camps?” Turley writes, urging us—and the University—to “help to get rid of polarization, which belongs to the truly uneducated.”
Professor Turley is, in essence, lamenting the loss of the middle ground, an exceptionally valuable piece of real estate that many contend has been carved up and subdivided into unrecognizable parcels. That got me to thinking about a university’s role as custodian of the middle ground. For me, articles such as Plutynski’s—and countless other such strong stands taken by students, staff, and faculty—signal the existence of an engaged community of learners who are not afraid to speak up, precisely because they’ve staked out a place in the University’s middle ground, knowing full well that arguments pro and con on any topic (presented with spit ’n vinegar, the old-fashioned recipe for passion) will eventually boil down to a fairly agreeable, coherent compromise. And that’s a process only possible in two instances: when ordering a pizza with half pineapple and half pepperoni, or when stepping onto a college campus to argue your point—whether for evolution or the health benefits of pineapple vs. pepperoni.
It’s been said that a university is something like the combination of a church and a used car lot, both a plot of consecrated soil where ideas are cultivated and protected, and paved earth where some of those ideas are spiffed up and placed for sale. A university is a curious mix of idealism and reality, and that is exactly why it works so well. Take, for example, the University’s Lassonde Center, where viable ideas springing from U researchers are analyzed and polished for placement on the open market. The same could be said of the University as a whole: It’s where philosophies are trotted out, tested, and tweaked through compromise to establish whether they will survive the open market of ideas. A university is one of the last places where a middle ground exists, where you can take on a popular or unpopular position, and do your dead level best to make a decent case for it. Try that on AM talk radio and see how far you get.
So it goes for the U’s new Accommodations Policy, widely regarded as a well-thought-out solution to a thorny issue. Yes, there are those who decry the policy and believe it to be one more nail in academic freedom’s coffin. But the policy, and the extensive discussions that led to its crafting, represent the best of what happens when smart people get together to hammer out a compromise.
I’m not suggesting that a solution to the evolution/ID debate will be hatched on this or any college campus. But if an idea or argument is to be given a fair and open hearing, whether you agree or not, a university is the place for that to occur—here where the middle ground is still cherished as a space to plead your case. A university must steadfastly guard that precious patch.
Some believe a bitter divisiveness is seeping onto college campuses.
But I would argue that aligning ourselves on each side of the field, like
preparing for a dodgeball match, is not necessarily a bad thing. It prods
you into arguing a good case, shoving an idea into the fray to see what
happens. Debates over evolution, Intelligent Design—and the balance
between academic freedom, academic integrity, and respecting the personal
beliefs of students—are a case in point. Arguments pro and con might
smack of divisiveness. But where some see contention, others see catharsis.
Where some see polarization, others see passion. The middle ground may
be fairly well trampled, bearing the footprints of a legion of soldiers,
but it’s still here, right beneath our feet.
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