Two fine essays from this past Sunday’s New York Times.
Frank Bruni: The Wilds of Education
When it comes to bullying, to sexual assault, to gun violence, we want and need our schools to be as safe as possible.
But when it comes to learning, shouldn’t they be dangerous?
Isn’t education supposed to provoke, disrupt, challenge the paradigms that young people have consciously embraced and attack the prejudices that they have unconsciously absorbed?
Isn’t upset a necessary part of that equation? And if children are lucky enough to be ignorant of the world’s ugliness, aren’t books the rightful engines of enlightenment, and aren’t classrooms the perfect theaters for it?
Not in the view of an unacceptable number of Americans. Not in too many high schools and on too many college campuses. Not to judge by complaints from the right and the left, in suburbs and cities and states red and blue.
The essay is about Banned Books Week, but to me it addresses the larger issue of what education is all about. To enlighten students about things they might have never heard about? To challenge their prejudices and presumptions? To open up their worldview? …Or to inculcate them to the worldview of their parents? To reinforce their parents’ prejudices? The latter is by far the most common across the world, it seems, obviously, from the Muslim societies who prevent girls from attending school at all, to the Orthodox Jews who keep their children from listening to radio or watching TV in order to shield them from the outside world, to the fundamentalist Christians who home-school their children to prevent them from any exposure to scientific knowledge that would challenge the fairy-tale mythology of Biblical stories.
I try not to be too cynical about this issue. The smart kids figure it out, just as I did. The kids who grow up accepting the mythology of their parents without any questioning… well, they will fit comfortably into their social group, and live happy lives… but they will never have any substantive influence on the greater culture, or the march of human progress. Which is moving beyond religious myths. (Unless the reactionaries of the Islamic State and similar groups, including the US Christian right-wing who would like to turn the US into a Christian theocracy, prevail. Which is not a far-fetched possibility.)
And here is an essay by David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who spells it out for those who think science — i.e. the conclusions of several hundreds of years of rigorous inspection of the real world — and religion — the suppositions of primitive societies thousands of years ago, influenced largely on psychological biases of the human mind, which are primed for tribal thinking and reproductive success — can somehow be reconciled.
It’s irresponsible to teach biology without evolution, and yet many students worry about reconciling their beliefs with evolutionary science. Just as many Americans don’t grasp the fact that evolution is not merely a “theory,” but the underpinning of all biological science, a substantial minority of my students are troubled to discover that their beliefs conflict with the course material.
I conclude The Talk by saying that, although they don’t have to discard their religion in order to inform themselves about biology (or even to pass my course), if they insist on retaining and respecting both, they will have to undertake some challenging mental gymnastic routines. And while I respect their beliefs, the entire point of The Talk is to make clear that, at least for this biologist, it is no longer acceptable for science to be the one doing those routines, as Professor Gould and noma have insisted we do.
Which is to say, the tide is shifting: it’s increasingly no longer up to science [reality] to defend itself against religion [primitive myths]; it’s the other way around (with increasingly little success).
At the same time, this week, there is a Value Voter Summit this past week, extensively covered by Right Wing Watch, that illustrates over and over again the intellectual vacuity and paranoia of the moronic Christian right-wing: for example, Erick Erickson: People Who Believe In Evolution Are Dumb And Jealous.
One can only smirk. And be very sad.
It is the equivalent of children first learning about the realities of biological reproduction and nevertheless deciding that people who believe in that sorta stuff are dumb and jealous, because the story of the stork who brings babies across the sky is so prettier, and that the biological explanation is so icky, and anyone who believes that icky stuff is just dumb, and jealous of the prettier story.