Monday, May 26, 2008

Factual indoctrination

I recently got into an online conversation regarding Intelligent Design and evolution. At the end, we both agreed that there isn't necessarily anything wrong with ID as a way of interpreting how the universe came to be, but this is not an idea that has any place in a science class. We also agreed that science teachers shouldn't tell their kids that evolution disproves the existence of God. (I wonder how often this actually happens, since the theory of evolution doesn't even address a supernatural power in one way or another.)

There seems to be some concern, mostly from conservatives from what I can tell, that teachers are "indoctrinating" their students with ideas that run counter to what their parents want them to believe. I personally don't think that my job is to convert my students to my system of beliefs, but is it possible to be completely neutral about everything?

For instance, with books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, we deal with issues like racism. And while discussing these books, I take it from the standpoint that judging people based on their race is the wrong thing to do. Am I indoctrinating? After all, it's a person's right if they want to be a racial supremecist. Is it okay for me to insult their beliefs? I once had a student who believed in "Aryan" superiority - a concept that I openly mocked. Guess what? I don't feel bad about doing this. I suppose you could accuse me of indoctrination with this issue, and I'll say that I'm guilty as charged.

A coworker of mine recently made a comment regarding people who deny the Holocaust and how they are just as out of touch with reality as people who deny evolution. He worried that he'd get some angry phone calls. (And I should point out, he did say that denying evolution wasn't as morally repugnant - but it was just as out of touch with the facts.) From what I understand, he didn't get any - but what of it? I mean, he's right! The thing is, when you have an argument with two opposing sides, sometimes there is one side that is simply wrong! And even though 50% of Americans have their heads in their asses when it comes to evolution, that doesn't somehow legitimize their opinion on the subject. And what about Holocaust deniers? Should he have respected their right to believe that Hitler didn't kill 12 million people?

What about Mormons? They believe that the Native Americans are a lost tribe of Jews. DNA evidence shows that they clearly are not. I don't know if there are any high school level classes that cover this sort of a thing, but what if an Advanced Biology class was covering genetics and this sort of a thing come up? Should the teacher, afraid of offending anybody, pretend that believing that Native Americans are Jews is a legitimate opinion? Let's also not forget history teachers - are they being offensive when they say that there isn't any evidence of ancient kingdoms in the Americas?

I covered a little bit of linguistics with my seniors. I gave them notes on the Indo-European languages and talked a little bit about how different languages developed. If a student asked me about all languages beginning when God wanted to stop the building of the Tower of Babel, how should I have handled that? I mean, my reaction is, "C'mon, that's stupid!" I wouldn't put it that way though, but I wouldn't feel right if I gave that idea any legitimacy. I suppose that I'd tell him or her that it's their right to believe that, but the evidence runs contrary to that idea. Am I indoctrinating? Is telling the truth the same as brainwashing?

After all, if we want to play this game, should we also give legitimacy to the ideas of Scientologists in Psychology classes? I'm sure most people would immediately bristle at that idea, but then they'd get all up in arms if the facts ran counter to their precious beliefs.

So, I'm not so sure that it's entirely possible to never indoctrinate students, but I'm also not sure that's such a bad thing. Let's be biased towards facts in a place of learning.

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