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.

A long comment at 3QuarksDaily

A moment ago, I posted a very long comment in response to a post by Quinn O’Neill at 3QuarksDaily.  Ms O’Neill’s post was a response to criticism that she had received after saying, in an earlier piece on the same site, that the most effective strategy for increasing the likelihood that schools will teach a biology curriculum based on sound scientific research might not consist of atheists making displays of personal hostility toward religious believers.  Much of the criticism Ms O’Neill received was based on the premise that anyone who questions the efficacy of such displays has betrayed the holy cause of Science and opened the gates to the Satanic hordes of Creationism.  In her response, Ms O’Neill felt obligated to reassure everyone that she is a True Unbeliever who renounces religion and all its works, and said among other things that she does not “believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”  I had to respond to that statement, and did so at a length that is really quite unreasonable for a blog comment.  Here it is:

“I don’t believe that science and religion, as worldviews, are compatible and I don’t believe that evolution is logically compatible with theism.”

That sentence includes some pretty broad terms.  I grant you that a religious sect which demands that its followers believe the earth to have been created in October 4004 BC is not likely to be pleased by the findings of geology, or biology, or astronomy.  But what about a religion like Confucianism, which, to the extent that it represents a worldview, does so not by preaching doctrines but by guiding its followers through ceremonies and structuring their social relations?  Where is the faith/ reason battle there?

To the extent that “religion” is a meaningful category, I suspect that its defining features have far less to do with the belief systems that many religions  have than with the social bonding that they all promise.  I’m inclined to agree with James P Carse, longtime professor of religious studies at New York University, who in his 2009 book THE RELIGIOUS CASE AGAINST BELIEF argues not only that religious can get along perfectly well without having belief systems attached, but that their belief systems often keep religions from achieving their real value, which is their ability to bind people together into communities that endure for many generations.

Professor Carse’s argument may seem odd, but if we draw an analogy with science I think we can see more clearly what he’s driving at.  The point of science isn’t to uphold certain doctrines or theories, but to challenge all doctrines and theories with evidence and logic.  A scientist who would rather defend a pet theory than face the facts that cast that theory in doubt isn’t making the most of science.  Likewise, religious believers who wage holy war in the name of militant ignorance in order to protect a cherished belief aren’t breathing life into the past and binding the present to the future; they are condemning past and present to the contempt of the future.

So “religion” is a problem.  “Theism” is a problem, too.  So far as I can tell from the Oxford English Dictionary, “theism” was first coined in 1678 by Ralph Cudworth as a contrary to “deism.”  While deists affirmed the existence of some sort of god but denied that the god they believed in had communicated directly with the world, Cudworth wanted a word to name persons who, like himself, believed in divine revelation.  Later it was used as we would now use “monotheism,” and presented as a contrary to “polytheism” and “atheism.”  Nowadays “theism” sometimes embraces polytheism and deism, and is defined in smaller dictionaries as “belief in a deity, or deities, as opposed to atheism.”

Does this attitude actually exist?  Is there, anywhere in the world, anyone who, as a matter of pure intellect, simply believes that there is at least one deity in existence?  I suspect not.  On the contrary, it seems likely that every person who would sincerely agree to such a proposition would also be a supporter of some particular religion, and of various other ideas and practices that come bundled with that religion.

However, let us assume, for the moment, that there is some point in talking about “theism” and “theists” in the very broad sense of agreement with the proposition that at least one deity exists.  Is it true that this proposition is not “logically compatible with” evolution?  Surely not.  An ancient Greek like Hesiod would fervently agree that at least one deity exists; however, in his THEOGONY, Hesiod describes the origin of the physical world as a spontaneous process that predated the birth of any gods, and frames the origins of the gods within the processes of nature.  It is admittedly unlikely that science will show Hesiod’s claims to be factually sound.  However, they are not only logically compatible with evolution, but are in the strictest sense of the words a story about evolution.

What about monotheism?  Is it logically inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that a single personal God created the world and rules over it, and on the other hand to say that life as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.  I don’t presume to know why you think that these ideas are logically incompatible, but I can think of some other people who hold them to be so.  What I say next is directed at them, not at you.

In the early modern era, the idea took hold that the physical world operates like a machine.  It came to be widely expected that, given adequate knowledge, it would always be possible to predict what output would result from any given input.  In time, this idea became so familiar that it was fashionable to claim that reason could function only if events in the world were all predetermined.

When determinism of this sort reigned supreme and nature appeared to be a grand machine, theologians often described God as a grand machinist.  For thinkers like Jean Calvin or William Paley, reason demanded determinism and so faith demanded a God whose plans were complete before the creation of the universe and were bound to be realized in every detail. For people still invested in these theologies, evolutionary theory is profoundly disquieting, since it suggests a world in which events not only need not be predetermined to be described rationally, but in which many events may be in principle impossible to predict.  Obviously, quantum mechanics is a problem for them as well.

Is an unpredictable world logically incompatible with monotheism?  It seems not.  Not only was the idea of a universe that operated like a machine as alien to the ancient Hebrews as it was to everyone else before modernity, but the idea of a God who has nothing to learn from nature is absent from the record of their religious ideas preserved in scripture.  At several points in the Hebrew scriptures God changes his mind in response to appeals from the prophets and patriarchs.  Evidently these men, members of nature as they are, have told God something he did not know.  As a result of what he learned from them, God alters his plans.  These passages were a scandal in the early modern era, but they don’t seem to have bothered the Jews before the West had its encounter with mechanistic determinism.  Now that evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics have shown that reason can get along quite well without determinism, why should the idea of a God who can learn from the world and change his mind as a result of that learning bother any believer?