A new study by the PEW research center on conservative attitudes toward higher education has indicated that the conservative suspicion of higher education has continued to rise: 59 percent of conservatives now think higher education is harming America. But the suspicion is higher among older conservatives than among college age students. Among those in college, it is higher among “very conservative students” than others. I believe part of the reason for this suspicion is that many older conservatives and many “very conservative students” have politicized basic scientific facts. When such scientific facts become politicized, then institutions that teach these facts become politicized.
One of the indices for some discontent among the youth is that “very conservative students were 14 percentage points less likely than very liberal ones to say they were comfortable speaking up in class.” (See “Conservatives Say Professors’ Politics Ruin College” in the Chronicle of Higher Education.) But here’s the dilemma I and other educators face. I, like many I know, try to contain my own views of politics, because I think it creates a better learning atmosphere in which students can share ideas and learn from one another in dialogue. But many “very conservative students” simply do not respect science. How is a professor to confront this situation?
Among the courses I have regularly taught are Introduction to Philosophy, Ethics, Logic, Critical Thinking, and classes in Philosophy and Religion. Sometimes in these classes, we discuss what good sources are, what peer review is. We talk about things like hasty generalizations and representative samples for statistics. Yet, these are largely introductory courses, so there is a learning curve. About ten years ago, in one of my first Philosophy and Religion courses at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, four of the fifteen students in the class submitted papers that quoted articles reporting the finding of Noah’s Arc. I returned the papers and allowed the students to resubmit. I explained that the sources they used weren’t peer reviewed. I discussed the problems of a literal belief in Noah’s arc. In doing this, was I making these students uncomfortable about sharing their views in class? Probably. The thing is, that was a part of my job. It is simply indicative of really bad reasoning to conclude that the story of Noah’s arc is literally true in its details. How large would the arc have had to be to contain all the world’s animals? How would the Komodo dragon have gotten to the Middle East to get on the arc? How about the kangaroo? It too was very far away. In the class, I did anything but dismiss religion. But I had to show many problems with literalist interpretations of the Bible or the Koran. Was I teaching with a liberal agenda? Of course not. But that wouldn’t be the view of a lot of those in the Pew Survey.
Similar issues come up in Introduction to Philosophy or Ethics courses. In an Introduction to Philosophy course I would find it irresponsible to have a formal debate on whether the earth was created in six days or in accord with evolution. In an Ethics course I would also find it irresponsible to have a formal debate about whether climate change is occurring in part because of human activity. I tell students that we are to respect best practices of critical thinking and, for scientific questions, science. Science of course isn’t flawless or absolutely certain, and some areas and ideas of science are better supported than others. Science also has been used ideologically in history. That’s all open for discussion. But we also underline reasons that it is our best guide for certain kinds of questions.
We discuss whether a lack of belief in a literal creation narrative must lead down the path of agnosticism or atheism. We ask how a believer can read the bible as true metaphorically while rejecting literalism. We also look at what epistemological issues prevent us from saying that evolution or the human effect on climate change is absolutely certain. But it’s bad reasoning to pretend that because we do not have absolute certainty on these issues that any alternative views from religion or mythology are just as good as the ones science provides to those questions. When it comes to the question of how the cosmos originated or present life forms came into existence, there simply is a lot of evidence pointing to the Big Bang and evolution, and–well–no evidence pointing to the literal truth of a six day creation story or Hesiod’s theogony. Of course, answering these questions of science does not answer the questions about whether a deity may be behind the Big Bang or evolution. But putting the physical explanations of the Bible or Greek mythology on equal footing with science for scientific questions is a non-starter. Is this stifling conservative voice? I fear many older conservatives and “very conservative students” think so. But if so, then doesn’t conservative voice on these issues of science need to be stifled? To fail to challenge these views and to pretend that all answers to scientific questions are of equal value would abnegate our responsibilities as educators. However, I fear that given the anti-intellectual climate, especially among the very conservative in the U.S., this means that many conservatives will continue to think that higher education has a liberal slant.