A message from President James W. Wagner

Bubbles should be burst. At least some of them.

Passing through an airport recently, I noticed in a shop a miniature globe, a biosphere, in which lived a half-dozen red shrimp and a bit of algae. The water-filled container creates a perfect, self-contained environment: the algae produces oxygen for the shrimp, which in turn produce carbon dioxide for the algae and “groom” it by eating microalgae and bacteria off it. The manufacturer says these biospheres can “live” as long as a decade, requiring nothing further from the outside. You can put it on your desk and forget about it.

Most of us have encountered persons or communities who would like to exist in a similar kind of “bubble.” While they go about life in the real world, working and playing, they would prefer not to upset the comfortable balance of thought in their mental framework. They would prefer no new ideas enter their self-contained system and no new mental energy be required of them.

Such persons might be described as “fundamentalists,” except that that term tends to have a particularly religious connotation for many of us these days, whether we approve or disapprove of it. But fundamentalisms come in various stripes.

Consider the political fundamentalist. A study published by Emory Professor of Psychology Drew Westen and his colleagues offers conclusive evidence that after voters make up their minds about a candidate, rational activity stops. The brain processes new information selectively—reinforcing positive emotional attitudes toward the preferred candidate and tuning out information that threatens this positive response. In other words, the system of thought resists being disturbed by facts from outside the bubble.

President (and Professor) Jimmy Carter’s recent book on American values outlines certain traits common to religious fundamentalism: rigidity of belief, intolerance of alternative perspectives, and personal derogation of those who think differently. Some would say that American political life seems to be rife with such traits, and indeed that is President Carter’s point—that a fundamentalist mindset leads to the dangers of exclusion of those who disagree and dominance of one set of beliefs throughout the system.

Universities have sometimes been accused of practicing their own form of fundamentalism. For instance, they have not always offered a welcome place for wrestling with religious faith. Higher education in America has long offered two alternative approaches to religion. In one, found in many church-related colleges, faculty and students must toe a certain line defined by a creed, so that scholarship is not so much informed by faith as determined by it. In the other, found in many major research universities, faith is set aside as a charming anachronism, and religion—if it is studied at all—is viewed through the lens of dispassionate objectivity.

Both of these models ignore the capacity of human intelligence to believe one thing while passionately examining its opposite. Both also diminish the vital need for persons of differing perspectives to understand each other’s intellectual constructs.

Over the course of this year, I want to write in this column about the ways in which Emory seeks to undermine our fundamentalisms, to burst our self-contained bubbles—whether those are religious, political, scientific, or historical. Imagine those shrimp set free from their biosphere into the ocean—a risky but astonishing place. Imagine ourselves set free from our protective bubbles into the wide sea of human experience and thought. The potential for wonder is great.

As always, I welcome your response.



© 2006 Emory University