Do fundamentalist students make life harder for biology teachers than for history teachers?

The comment thread on this recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal closed down before I got around to posting a comment, so I’ll make my remarks on it here:

My first reaction to the punchline was this, which I posted on our Tumblr site: “The punchline to this comic strip doesn’t really work.  There are many parts of the world where history teachers attempting to introduce the Holocaust meet with exactly this kind of resistance, and then some.”

I thought a bit more about it, and decided that comment was a false start.  It would be more interesting to take the comic on its own terms and ask what happens when history teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students, as opposed to what happens when biology teachers come into contact with fundamentalist students.

In most school districts in the USA, every time evolution comes up in biology class the teachers have to brace themselves for a vocal onslaught from students who have been extensively briefed in denialist talking points by highly organized groups.  That’s a challenge history teachers don’t usually face in the USA.  Sometimes a history teacher might have to talk about some topic the students find distressing, and they may respond with anger.  But it is quite rare for those angry students to present their views in a form worked out by the kind of ideological apparatus that Creationists have set up for themselves.  There are countries in the world where other forms of denialism are supported by prestigious institutions that drill a mass audience in their talking points, as acquaintances of mine who have tried to teach 20th century European history in the Gulf states can attest.  In the USA, there are political interest groups that would like to establish a presence as widespread as that of the Creationists; for example, a couple of years ago the corn lobby had some success with efforts to punish academics for saying that cows eat grass.  But those efforts have not (yet!) become a routine factor in classrooms.  So, it is fair to say that in the USA, Creationism stands alone among denialist ideologies as a systematic challenge to classroom teachers.

Still, I would say that it is going too far to claim that “Teaching Intro Biology is harder than teaching Intro History,” even in regard to the narrow question of the challenges fundamentalist students present to their teachers.  Fundamentalist students may not come to history class ready to spout ideological boilerplate every time the teacher gets to something interesting, and so they are not as immediately obnoxious a presence there as they are in biology, geology, or astronomy class.  Indeed, I’ve taught many classes on history, and every class has included several fundamentalists.  I can say that fundamentalists are usually very quiet through such classes.

So when it comes to keeping good order and discipline in the classroom and getting through material, fundamentalist students do not represent a special challenge to history teachers.  But if you actually want to engage them in the subject, that’s a different story.  I’m a classical scholar, so when I teach history it is the history of ancient Greece and Rome.  Many times, I’ve put this question on a test: “How did the religious life of Rome change in the second century BC?”  A significant percentage of the students in every class has responded that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  After I’ve graded the tests, I read the question aloud to them, then mention that many of the students said that the Romans converted to Christianity in the second century BC.  It usually takes half a minute or so before everyone realizes what “BC” stands for and starts laughing.  That’s an example of a widespread problem.  Students from fundamentalist backgrounds simply cannot imagine a world in which Christianity is not the only religion worth mentioning, or even a form of Christianity other than the one within which they were raised.

That problem, in turn, is the tip of a much bigger iceberg.  Fundamentalists realize that science is powerful and important; that’s why they package Creationism as “Creation Science.”  They do not have any reason to believe that history is important, however.  Fundamentalists hold that the Bible or Qu’ran or whatever text is sacred to their religion represents an unchanging truth, complete and identical from one age to the next, and that this is the only truth that ultimately matters.  Not only does the text not have a history, but the interpretation of that text does not have a history.  There is only one right way to read the text,  that is the only way that has ever been or will ever be right, and the right way exhausts the meaning of the text completely.  If you believe that, then the record of history is not part of the ongoing engagement between humanity and the world through which communities are formed and humans  come to understanding; understanding has already come to us, complete and error-free, deposited in your hotel room free of charge by the Gideons International, and community is the byproduct of that understanding.  For people who look at it that way, history  is just one damn thing after another, at best an amusing diversion from the serious business of life.

And of course it gets worse.  Demonstrate that the modern age is an extremely peculiar time, that the ideas which fundamentalists take for granted are possible only in an age of mass-produced books, the nation-state, and rationalized bureaucracy, bring home to them the fact that none of these things existed in the first millennium and a half of Christianity, and they go into an intellectual tailspin.  Some of them do become highly defensive; though they are not armed with the prefabricated circular reasoning of the Creationists, they can make a nuisance of themselves in the classroom.

That, of course, is to say nothing of their written work.  When fundamentalists try to stuff their ideology into a scientific report, the result is simply wrong.  A teacher can respond with a low grade and a reference to the standards of scientific writing.  In the humanities, we have to take a wider variety of writing seriously.  That isn’t to deny that there are standards, or that it is possible to structure an assignment so that you avoid wasting a great deal of time following the deadest of ideological dead ends.  Still, you can’t keep a humanistic discussion alive if you set the bounds as narrow as those in scientific writing.

The humanities, like the sciences,  are possible only where people are prepared, not only to challenge each others’ preconceptions, but also to challenge their own preconceptions.  In science, writing is usually the record of observations, experiments,  and analyses that presented the researcher with such challenges.  In the humanities, writing is not the record of these challenges, it is itself the process by which they are presented.  So, if you make it impossible for fundamentalist students to write fundamentalist essays, you make it impossible for them to profit from an exposure to history, literary studies, or any other branch of the humanities.

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