Martin Luther King, Jr.’s views on science—including his assertion that humankind’s moral and spiritual progress lags behind our scientific and technological progress—offer a starting point for an exploration of science and civil rights.
In his 1963 sermon “The Man Who Was a Fool,” King wrote, “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men.”
Elsewhere, the civil rights leader (and Baptist preacher) warned against a naïve polarizing of science and religion.
In “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” he defined the symbiotic roles of the two realms: “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary.”
With King’s words providing a touchstone, Asheville School will explore ethical issues that emerge in the intersection of science and human rights during a two-day event for students and faculty members on January 17 and 18.
How do King’s Cold War-era, Space Age admonitions apply to a Digital Age, in which we can view images from the surface of Mars? How do we ensure that our moral compass improves and updates alongside such scientific and technological developments? What can we learn from historical events that illuminate the ethical challenges conjured by scientific advances?
Asheville School Humanities teacher Jim Gardner organized interdisciplinary talks, films, workshops, and activities to push Asheville School students to consider the tough questions implicit in such topics as climate justice, equitable distribution of resources, medical ethics, and eugenics.
“The Science and Civil Rights topic is important for students to study because not studying it is injustice-by-default: unawareness of issues such as eugenics, surveillance, genetic ownership, and climate justice could result in our unintentionally furthering injustice,” Gardner said. “ We don’t want our students to be not-so-innocent bystanders but to be conscious and aware agents of change. To ignore such topics would be a disservice to the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and others who have fought for civil rights.”
Workshop topics will also include civil rights for people with disabilities, the science of morality, Black Enlightenment, genetically modified organisms, and many others.
“I’m excited about the range of topics,” Gardner said. “We hope students become more aware and will be inspired to action and to further their learning.”
Biomedical engineer and Medtronic principal specialist Cathy Condie, Director of Personalized Medicine and Pharmacogenomics at Mission Heath Dr. Lynn Dressler, and Director of the NAACP’s Climate Justice Initiative Jacqueline Patterson will lead the first convocation in Asheville School’s Graham Theater. UNC Asheville physics professor Michael Ruiz will discuss jazz and civil rights during the second convocation.
“The topic and the content of the topic is so important for students and faculty to address and study, given the context of what’s happening politically, and the historical context and the development of science and technology,” Gardner said. “It’s central to humanities and discussing what it means to be human.”
The event is part of a series of programs celebrating the school’s newly remodeled science classrooms in the recently dedicated Vandergrift Science Center. For several years, Asheville School has presented a Civil Rights curriculum in January; previous program topics have included the Holocaust, School Integration in Asheville, and Songs of Freedom.