Public Belief and the Professoriate

One story about the founding of Cambridge University cites ongoing “town-vs.-gown” problems at Oxford. Conflicts between the citizens of Oxford, i.e. those who kept the town running, and the academics at the University led a group of Oxfordians to find some academic solace some seventy-five miles northeast. Such a problem, in my experience, does not exist in Blacksburg, Virginia; there is no consistent tension between Blacksburg “Townies” and Virginia Tech. Some frustration does exist, especially during the fall football season, but it fails to make manifest into cultural clashes between Townies and Hokies.

I am interested in a bigger problem, though, when academics fail to live up to intellectual expectations of publics with which they interact. Specifically, a recent article, “How Creationism Hurts Christian Colleges and Their Students,” drew my attention. In it, Karl Giberson focuses on the disparity between the beliefs of the evangelical Christian public and the teachings from the evangelical Christian professoriate. While a majority of evangelical Christians may profess to believing in a young-earth creationist cosmogony, most Christian colleges and universities, members of the CCCU (Council for Christian Colleges and Universities), teach the science of evolution and the cosmogony of a 13-billion-year-old universe. This disparity becomes increasingly intense as the students at these colleges believe in a young earth, while their professors teach a much older earth. The reactionary anti-science stance that many of the students hold, a result of the teaching given from their church pulpits and, often, at home, pits them instinctively at odds with their professors. Those who find themselves convinced by the science of evolutionary biology and stellar structure find their new-found knowledge at odds with their closely-held beliefs.

Perhaps this problem is most present for CCCU professors. As the faculty of CCCUs often have to sign something similar to a statement of faith, they acknowledge that their students are likely to hold similar beliefs. For science professors, forcing students to choose between science and faith is likely to destroy one of the beliefs– either the student becomes an anti-science reactionary or s/he loses faith altogether. In either case, the student becomes a negative stereotype.

Changing beliefs is not, I argue, a part of the job of a college professor. This is especially true of challenging religious beliefs. For many evangelical Christians, a belief in young-earth creationism holds onto the truth of the whole Bible. For Christians who believe in the science of evolution, trust that God would not create a false image of nature (i.e. a 6,000-year-old earth with evidence of multi-million year history) is crucial to full belief. The professoriate ought not be interested in changing beliefs, but in presenting arguments and letting their students make informed decisions. That, after all, is an important part of good citizenship, and of developing good citizens.

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