Thursday, December 08, 2005

Have They Tried Open-Mindedness?

Have a look at this vaguely distrubing article from Current Magazine. It discusses the plight of students brought up with creationist pseudoscience having to confront the real thing when they get to college.

Rich Scott’s first few days on the West Chester University campus in suburban Philadelphia were spent worrying—and not just because he was nervous about getting along with his roommate. A recent graduate of a Christian high school, Scott had grown up with parents, teachers and pastors telling him that God created the earth in six days and that evolution is a myth. “Make sure you know what you believe,” Scott’s teachers had said in class as they encouraged their pupils to defend and explain their beliefs about the origin of humankind. And so Scott went to college armed with a firm belief in intelligent design and a determination not to let his years in school affect his conviction in God.

Yes, certainly. I mean, what could experts in biology, physics and chemistry possibly contribute to a discussion about the origin of humankind? Surely your high school teachers have already told you everything of relevance on that subject.

I have told this story before, but I think it is worth repeating. I used to listen to a fundamentalist Christian radio station during the time I spent in Kansas. One time they aired a call-in show for parents seeking Christian advice for dealing with various child-related problems. At one point an obviously distraught mother called in and said, “Like one of your previous callers my family has recently suffered a devastating setback. My son wasn't killed, but to me it feels just as permanent. He just called home from college and told me he had become an atheist.”

These stories are a good reminder that many Christians live in absolute terror of having their faith challenged. This terror is only doubled when they think about their children leaving home. For them, rival ideas and theories are not interesting starting points for stimulating discussion. They are threats to be defeated or avoided.

I find it difficult to imagine being brought up in such an environment. In a previous post I commented that I feel a kinship with other Jews despite the fact that I am an atheist. This is one place where that kinship manifests itself. If you scoured the country I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a Jewish family raising their children to be as closed-minded as Mr. Scott. Jews are famously argumentative, and the idea of closing one's mind to certain ideas without giving them proper consideration is anathema. Jews, in my experience, have far more sophisticated attitudes about faith than many Christians.

For most people it is not considered a triumph to leave college believing exactly what you believed as a freshman. For students like Mr. Scott, it is the goal.

From here the article goes on to describe the familiar statistics about the low rate of acceptance for evolution among many Americans. We have this somewhat comforting pargaraph:

“Many students have, over the years, come to me at church to express concern that a professor is opposed to Christianity and the basis for their concern is that the professor talks about evolution,” David Buchanan, a professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University, said in an e-mail. He has frequently taught seminars on the origin of life and estimates that “more than half” of his students would, if asked, “assert quite a conservative view of Genesis 1:11,” the portion of the Bible that outlines the Judeo-Christian creation story. Buchanan himself is an evangelical Christian and believes that it is important to discuss origin theories that contradict evolution, because “in science, we are always looking at alternatives.” He cautions, however, that the current incarnation of intelligent design theory has not reached the viability necessary to be taught in a college science class.

I'm not sure what alternatives Buchanan has in mind, but otherwise this sounds good.

But I'm not so sanguine about this one:

Scott, despite his initial fears, found no such discrimination in any of West Chester's science departments. Once his professors found out that he believed in intelligent design, they strove to help him find ways to write his papers without sacrificing either scientific knowledge or his personal beliefs. “They were very impressed that I was willing to take a stand and they helped me a lot.” Heartened by his own experience, Scott found other Christian geology majors through facebook and sent them supportive messages. “You might think it’s going to be hard the next few years, but keep praying, keep close to God, and He’ll help you through it,” he encouraged them.

If your personal beliefs are in direct conflict with scientific knowledge, it seems that something has to be sacrificed.

It's all well and good to say that professors should be respectful of student's beliefs. The problem is that I never hear any imprecation for the student to reciprocate this respect. Is the student expected to respect the fact that his science professors are experts in the relevant branches of science? Shouldn't the student be expected to take seriously the idea that professional scientists have good reasons for accepting evolution and rejecting creationism, reasons their religious instructors probably never explained to them? Yes, of course, students should not be ridiculed or threatened for their beliefs and of course professors should avoid indoctrination. But students have to hold up their end of the bargain by recognizing that much of what they were told about science in their religious education was not correct. They have to understand that it is not the professor's job to coddle them when they claim to believe things that are patently untrue.

That last sentence sure is creepy. Learning things that challenge your preconceived notions is, for many people, something to be endured, not something to benefit from. I can't imagine what it's like to be that confident that, as a teenager, you have successfully resolved the fundamental mysteries of existence. I don't care if Mr. Scott learns to accept evolution. But I do hope he will learn to be a bit more open-minded, and a bit more willing to accept that things he heard in high school should be the beginning, not the end, of his education.


At 9:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. That's all I can really say at this point. How wowfully depressing. Great blog. I'll be back soon.

At 5:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mother has to deal with similar things to this, she is an admin assitant for k-12 alternative and home schooling in my home town's district. She finds it increadibly disheartening, some of the things she sees turned in, more so with the religious than with anything else. She not only gets to see religion forcing its way into science, but many different versions of religious historical revisionism. I have no qualms about parents being able to teach their children as they see fit, I merely feel sorry for those children who are given a religious education and then either a) have to come to terms with it later, or, b) wear it as a blinder for the rest of their lives.


At 7:33 AM, Blogger LiberPaul said...

"But I do hope he will learn to be a bit more open-minded, and a bit more willing to accept that things he heard in high school should be the beginning, not the end, of his education."

Great closing!

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"24 percent of whom believe in evolution. Young Americans are more likely to believe in evolution"

I hate when they say believe like its a cult. I always use "understand that evolution happened" or "know that evolution is a fact"

At 3:39 PM, Blogger Jason said...

I read that article, and the scariest thing is the passage that basically that some student were worried that their grades may suffer when their professors found out their belief in intelligent design. Really? You mean the professor might take points off on a test if write something like "life is the way it is today not because of natural selection, but by an intelligent designer" when the poor teacher has spent the whole semester describing the methods that natural selection entails in shaping life? Come on.

At 12:39 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If you scoured the country I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a Jewish family raising their children to be as closed-minded as Mr. Scott"

Sorry, we Jews have our fundies too. Look at the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, or the Chasidim and messianics here in America (and especially here in New York City :-( ).

That said, there are plenty of folks besides fundies, who consider a college degree as a meal ticket rather than a mark of education....


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