Saturday, September 27, 2008

Globe: BC aids Catholic schools, Harvard scholar links math and faith.

By and large, the Boston Globe isn't known for great religion reporting. Hence, I was surprised to see not one but two highly positive faith-related stories in today's Globe. First off, there's a great story highlighting the success of the Urban Catholic Teaching Corps, a teaching-service program based at Boston College that puts recent college graduates to work as teachers in underresourced urban parochial schools. Here's some of what the Globe has to say about the program:
In a sharply pressed skirt and blouse, Shannon Keating confidently surveyed her seventh-grade social studies class, her heels firmly clicking on the wood floor as she paced before the chalkboard.

A year ago, fresh out of Boston College, Keating was a wide-eyed new teacher at the Gate of Heaven Catholic School in South Boston, leading a classroom for the first time. Now, in her second year, the 24-year-old has learned to keep a keen eye out for the slightest sign of mischief. "Boys and girls," she said sternly to some fidgety children. "Eyes up here."

Keating is among a dozen BC graduate students in education who are gaining intense on-the-job training in area Catholic schools through an innovative teaching-service program. In exchange for two years of work in Catholic elementary and high schools in the Boston area, students attend BC's Lynch School of Education for free and live together at a former convent in Dorchester.

The Urban Catholic Teaching Corps is throwing a lifeline to struggling Catholic schools in desperate need of young teachers. Part of a national campaign that each year places 400 teachers in Catholic schools, the BC program gives recent college graduates from across the country experience in a parochial setting as they complete their academic training.

"It's introducing a new generation of teachers to an urban setting and creating a pipeline of young teachers to Catholic schools," said Michael J. James, executive director of the Center for Catholic Education at the Lynch School. "We're looking at this for the long-term."

The teaching corps, in its 12th year, also gives service-minded students the financial freedom to pursue a calling they deeply believe in, and to pay back the Catholic schools many attended as children. Students, who eat, pray, and do volunteer work together at the sprawling Dorchester home, are bound by a shared faith and a sense of social responsibility, and see Catholic education as a source of great hope and opportunity for low-income children.

The program appears to be succeeding. Of the nearly 60 graduates of the program, more than half remain in Catholic education, James said.
While BC helps graduates integrate faith and service, Harvard mathematician Martin Nowak is working to show the compatibility of faith and reason. As the Globe reports, scholars like Nowak hope to offer sound evidence in favor of religious commitment even if faith itself remains outside the bounds of empirical inquiry:

If evolution is all about survival of the fittest, then why have humans evolved a sense of altruism and cooperation? The seeming contradiction has engaged theologians, scientists, and even comic book writers (think the Incredible Hulk) who've probed human duality and how its good half sometimes empowers selflessness to override self-interest.

The British biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins believes that altruism in modern humans is essentially an evolutionary oops, albeit a beneficial one. It paid off in prehistory, when people lived in clans and protecting others meant the survival of their own gene pools; now that we've expanded into large cities, our instinct to help others still kicks in, even though those we aid may have no relation to us.

On the other hand, Francis Collins, former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and a Christian, sees in our willingness to work with others the handprint of God.

Then there is Harvard's Martin Nowak. A mathematician and biologist, he agrees with Dawkins's explanation of how we evolved to be good Samaritans. Yet as a Catholic, he rejects Dawkins's notion that believing in evolution precludes belief in a God who included altruism in evolution's bequest to us. Needless to say, he also rejects Dawkins's disdain for believers as scientifically illiterate yahoos. This Vienna-born mathematician says that if you do the math, you'll find that cooperation is more than just a nice leftover from humanity's infancy; it's a winning strategy for living, a way to thrive.

For the past three years, with Sarah Coakley, formerly of Harvard Divinity School and now at Cambridge University in England, Nowak pursued a study project, the title of which - "The Evolution and Theology of Cooperation" - gives a clue to its partnership between science and religion. Nowak said his work demonstrated the mathematical probability that being cooperative, generous, and forgiving produces better results for people than looking out for Number One.

As part of his demonstration, Nowak devised repeated rounds of an exercise from game theory called the prisoner's dilemma. The math is complex to laypeople, but the basic premise of the game is straightforward: Two prisoners held separately are given their options: If both stay silent, each gets six months in jail. If both implicate the other, they each get five years. If one turns traitor and the other stays mum, the gabby prisoner goes free, but the other gets 10 years. Neither knows what the other will do.

In isolation, each thinks: Finking on the other guy could bring me freedom, but it could also bring us both five years. Cooperating with each other, by both of us clamming up, guarantees a short, six-month sentence. Mathematically speaking, Nowak said, cooperation is the best bet.

Math aside, Nowak and Coakley say biology has enshrined cooperation as well. In their proposal seeking grants for their project, they wrote, "Genes cooperate in cells, cells cooperate in organisms, and individuals cooperate in societies."

Coakley said in an e-mail that Christians seeking rational defense for their faith might "draw strength from considerations about the nature of the universe [and] forms of evolutionary development. . . . These arguments might not persuade a rampant atheist (what would?); but for one at least 'considering' faith, they could have a significant impact."

To learn more about the Coakley-Nowak study on the 'Evolution and Theology of Cooperation,' take a look at the project website or take a look at this Harvard Magazine article on Nowak's work. AMDG.


At 10/01/2008 1:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for this post. I'll let my students know about this. Some are writing papers about reconciling Faith and Science, particularly evolution.


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