Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2006
A short time ago, I received a thoughtful letter from an alumna, calling on me and other college presidents to make a public case for science and its relevance to national policy debates. Because so many scientific issues have become increasingly politicized, her letter prompted me to share with you some of my reflections on public advocacy and the ways in which Smith can best advance national conversations.
I believe strongly that scientific literacy is a critical element of a liberal arts education. It surprises me how frequently people use the term "liberal arts" to mean the humanities. People often ask me, for example, whether Smith's development of science and engineering means that it will abandon the liberal arts, as if the sciences were not liberal arts. Indeed, I have argued that in today's world, we should regard engineering as a liberal art. I have twice taught a course on science and literature with Professor Marjorie Senechal, precisely to encourage more conversation across what the physicist and novelist C. P. Snow called the two cultures. No doubt many of you recall an op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times several months ago, criticizing those who regard a person as liberally educated who understands Plato and Dickens but not relativity or stem cell research.
Many thoughtful people are concerned with the United States' vulnerability to losing leadership in science and technology, a central theme of Thomas L. Friedman's best-selling book, The World is Flat. Motivating women to enter scientific and technological fields is a critical piece of this issue. Women comprise almost 60 percent of the college population, a fact that makes their low participation in science and engineering a concern not only of gender equity but national competitiveness. The ongoing media interest in Smith's engineering program attests to the leadership Smith has taken in this regard.
More fraught, however, are the increasingly political controversies about scientific evidence—debates about evolution and intelligent design, stem cell research, or global warming. In keeping with our commitment to undergraduate teaching, we often give public forums about these topics at Smith; we held one about stem cell research last year, from which the papers will be published, and one about evolution and intelligent design this year, at which students and faculty packed Stoddard Auditorium.
It is dismaying the degree to which topics like evolution and global warming—topics that should be matters of scientific argument and, indeed, on which there is broad scientific consensus—have become ammunition for party politics. I do not believe that it furthers the aims of colleges for presidents to wade into partisanship, especially at a time on our campuses when we are trying to widen the spectrum of political debate.
Today, a college president's bully pulpit is a strategic resource. In choosing which subjects to speak and write about publicly, I rely not only on my convictions but also on what I feel best furthers the mission of the college. In my public writings and speeches, I have chosen to focus on such topics as women in science, the debate about college access and affordability, the need to build the capacity for civil discourse among college students, the importance of women's colleges, work/life balance for women and for men, and the competitive frenzy in admissions. All of these are related directly to Smith's legacy and future and to the contributions it can best make to our world through education.