April 5, 2006: Letters

Alito ’72’s experience as an undergraduate

Tilghman’s lecture

Agenda-based teaching

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Alito ’72’s experience as an undergraduate

It was a pleasure to see Sam Alito ’72 on the cover of PAW (March 8). Of course I watched the confirmation hearings and was gratified to see the name “Princeton” mentioned over and over again. I was even more gratified to see just what measure of man it was who was picked by President Bush to fill the Sandra O’Connor vacancy.

God knows that Mr. Alito is a far more self-composed, disciplined, and even-tempered man than I will ever be. For him to say, about Princeton during the Vietnam years, that it was a place full of privileged young people behaving very badly was the understatement of the year. Truly, as New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote, it was a confrontation between the angry and the dutiful. But for me, having graduated in ’62 rather than ’72 and watching helplessly from a distance as our University was trashed by a misdirected few, it was a very, very angering experience. As Sam Alito is quoted in the PAW story as saying, one comes to Princeton to study, to take exams, to ace them, to succeed; after all, one’s parents worked hard and long hours to pay for our being here.

My anger again boiled over as I watched senator after senator treat Sam Alito with disdain, or condescension, or insinuation that he was a liar. He took the abuse. And the nation sympathized, and suddenly knew who mattered and who didn’t.

Salem, Mass.


I graduated one year after Samuel Alito. I disagree with him that “those of us who came from places like Trenton and were Catholics did not fit into the Princeton mold.” Catholic myself, I came from working-class Clifton, N.J., and I do not recall my better-born classmates making me feel unwelcome. The judge also suggests that anti-war protest was a lark in which Groton grads indulged, while poor Jersey boys supported the war. I — and many other prole Princetonians — loathed the war as much as our fancier friends. (Some working-class hero. After Princeton, Alito joined the Reagan administration and then used his judgeship to support corporate interests.)

Judge Alito also expressed disdain for classmates who opposed the presence of ROTC on campus. Like all other programs, ROTC was obliged to admit auditors. I went to the first class to see what was taught. I was refused admission. The colonel in charge told me that this was a “one-day gimmick” to discourage protestors and that he would let me in next week. I reported this to The Daily Princetonian. The next week, the colonel advised me that he had informed Career Services I was “mentally unstable” and warned that I was jeopardizing my future by criticizing ROTC. Of course, I reported this to the Prince, too.

New York, N.Y.


As a proud and liberal New Englander I disagree with much of Justice Alito’s worldview, and I fear his coming contributions to conservative programs that rend our country’s social fabric. I write, however, to register disapproval of your caricature of him on the March 8 cover as an oversized, unkempt head with querulous visage on a stubby, junior-high-school body. The man achieved his position through properly appointed channels, he has the support of a great many Princetonians, and his office deserves respect. Your ridicule feeds those who criticize the University community of pettiness and leftward bias. As we watch cartoons trigger riots and reprisals elsewhere in the world, we might reflect that having the right to ridicule doesn’t mean it is wise, appropriate, or necessary to use it.

Lincoln, Mass.

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Tilghman’s lecture

President Tilghman (President’s Page, Jan. 25) apparently believes that we should base our “science” of origins on faith in naturally occurring spontaneous generation, a notion debunked by Pasteur and a phenomenon never observed by anyone, anywhere at any time. While Dr. Tilghman is clearly free to make faith-based statements grounded in philosophical naturalism, she should not pass them off as hard science and certainly should not insist that they be the only perspective taught in the nation’s classrooms.

Darwinism as an explanation of origins is a theory in crisis. The conflict, however, is not between science and religion, as Dr. Tilghman asserts, but between science and Darwinism. Scientific research now indicates that the primitive environment on earth was extremely hostile to the chemical precursors of life, contrary to prior belief. The fossil record is a continuing embarrassment to Darwinists. The volume and organization of information in DNA and the irreducible complexity of operating systems within the cell defy construction by Darwinian random variation and natural selection.

At the very least, scientists who dare question the Darwinian orthodoxy shouldn’t be subjected to ad hominem attacks and denial of professional opportunities. Furthermore, impressionable teenagers shouldn’t be taught that science has “proven” (when it hasn’t) that human life is the result of purposeless, random, natural processes, distorting their worldview with regard to meaning, ethics, and the inherent dignity of each human life.

Marblehead, Mass.


Concerning President Tilghman’s Oxford lecture on science’s search for origins, I have two comments. First, her argument implies that while intelligence in design is out, design remains. This could be called “‘unintelligent design” and would eliminate a creator. But that does not work, as we are left with design coming from Darwin’s forces of natural selection. We become like people who inspect a house and decide to believe in carpenters, but not in architects. That only shifts the argument, rather than resolving it. We must believe in neither, or both.

If there is neither intelligence nor design, then we are neither intelligent nor designed. We may imagine that our minds are exempt from this, but we cannot escape; brains simply have minds. Rather than calling Dr. Tilghman’s speech excellent, we should say that her biologically conditioned synapses, further conditioned by her environment, have yielded a speech that resonates with similarly conditioned primates. That resonance has even more to do with the shared assumptions of her peers than with science.

Second, scientific knowledge is seen as a mere modern construct, a phenomenon that is surprisingly out of place in the postmodern world. We may hold to the scientific meta-narrative, but we may not insist that it is “true.” Science itself has become a relic.

Michael Polanyi, a contrarian, has argued that everything that is human and truly interesting about a person is unmeasurable by science. This allows Dr. Tilghman’s argument to be the result of an intelligent, rather than of a random, mind, but it comes from a very different set of assumptions. Scientism not only empties society of its values, it tends to empty the human person of its worth.

Winona Lake, Ind.


If Michael Behe’s book, as well as those by his Discovery Institute colleagues Phillip Johnson, William Dembski et al., do not constitute an “assault” on the theory of evolution, the word has lost its meaning. And speaking of a “respectful” approach, anyone who has read those works knows that they are replete with disdain, often snidely expressed, not only for Darwin but for distinguished contemporary scientists and theologians who dare to refute the technical and logical flaws in the “science” proffered by the proponents of “intelligent design.”

President Tilghman identified several of those flaws: Misunderstanding of the processes of evolution; and also the peculiar concept that gaps in the fossil record, differing interpretations of data, and lack of certainty somehow warrant wholesale rejection of the theory of evolution.

Behe has been challenged on all of those points, but in the end falls back on his assertion that the origin of complex biological structures has not been explained in “exact” molecular steps. He says the lack of “exact” step-by-step explanation is “an enormous monkey wrench thrown into its presumed gradual, Darwinian evolution.” But if that were so, would not science have come to a screeching halt before its machinery had hardly started? Exactitude is rarely, if ever, a practical or sensible goal. And how does a lack of certainty or finality in the theory of evolution justify the absolutist, reductionist conclusion of “intelligent design”?

Wayland, Mass.
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Agenda-based teaching

Christopher Hedges’ class, “The Christian Right and The Open Society” (Notebook, Feb. 15), is perhaps an extreme but by no means an unusual example of the trend away from real scholarship and toward agenda-based teaching. The reading list features books that are openly hostile to Christian teaching and that link Christianity to fascism and totalitarianism. For “balance,” it ignores works by thoughtful Christian authors and apparently offers only the Lahaye/ Jenkins works of popular fiction.

Given Mr. Hedges’ agenda, I doubt that any fair discussion of conservative Christian teachings will take place. The classes will meet to condemn the “radicals” and walk smugly away. It is a sad commentary on what Princeton and American higher education generally have become.

Woodstock, Ill.
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