Saturday, July 08, 2006

More nonsense from Peter Steinfels

From today's NY Times:

C. John Sommerville, however, is less interested in any loss to religion than in the loss to the university—and its place in shaping the culture.

A century ago, American universities aspired to be the wellsprings of political, social and cultural leadership, Mr. Sommerville, a professor emeritus, argues in "The Decline of the Secular University," a slim volume published by Oxford in May and excerpted last month in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But today, he maintains, "the secular university is increasingly marginal to American society," ceding influence to popular culture, talk show pundits, "populist bloggers" and political research organizations, even hiring out university laboratories to business and government in hopes of revenues from patents.

Utter nonsense; first of all my alma mater was always a "secular university," as were places like MIT, Cal Tech and so forth. They helped make the US an industrial power, which on the balance is not a bad thing, provided we learn from our mistakes.

But having become tongue-tied when it comes to this language and associations, secular universities "fail to connect with people's most urgent questions," Professor Sommerville writes.

People's "most urgent questions" involve things like: how can we keep from blowing ourselves up? How can we feed and keep healthy 6 billion people? These questions don't have a damned thing to do with religious beliefs but practices.

The point, Professional Sommerville emphasizes, is not "to apply religious dogmas to our intellectual puzzles," an unlikely venture, in any case, but also reflecting "the habit of seeing religion as a collection of doctrines, a thing to think about, when it can be a whole perspective or way of thinking."

What he wants, instead, is simply that the university "widen its discourse," invite "religious voices into the discussion" and allow religiously committed scholars "to be themselves in their academic roles."

Other than dogma, and a committment to practice (in which we Buddhists seem to have a large market share) what else could be brought to the table?

What would be the point bringing the Pope into a discussion on generalized singular value decomposition?

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