While discussing current events (specifically the primaries) with my students today, things took a shocking turn.
Students were asking me about Trump, because they’re nervous about what his presidency might mean for the country, and for them personally. Now, I’m really careful to remain as objective as possible, but I also think it’s important to be honest. So I told them why I don’t think Trump could be elected, even if he wins the primary. (I don’t believe he can appeal to moderates, and I think he’ll anger enough Republicans along the way to ensure victory for the democratic candidate, whoever that may be.)
All fine and good. Then another student asked if there were any black candidates in the race. I mentioned Carson, but also pointed out that I don’t think he can win. Naturally, they asked why. And I spoke about how, for better or for worse, the Republicans have amassed behind the three frontrunners, and anybody else — Bush, Carson, Fiorina, et al — are basically muddying the waters at this point.
“But is Carson a good candidate?”
“I don’t know enough to say for sure.”
“Would you vote for him?”
“Well, for one, he doesn’t believe in evolution.”
Silence in the classroom for a moment. Then: “What, you mean like that stuff they teach in science class? That we come from monkeys?”
“Well, that’s oversimplifying a little. We didn’t come from monkeys. But yes, evolution like you learned in science class.”
“Oh. I don’t believe in that either.”
My turn to be silent. A handful of students begin to nod their heads in agreement.
Me: “You guys don’t believe in evolution?”
About a third of the students are shaking their heads at me.
“Darwin? Natural selection?”
Now several talk at once. “That didn’t happen,” or “We didn’t come from monkeys,” or “I believe in God.”
I paused. I’m not a science teacher, so it’s not really my job to go straightening them out on the finer points of evolution. Further, I’m not about to stand up in front of a classroom full of young, impressionable minds, and begin hammering away at their religious beliefs. I like having a job too much to go getting tangled in that debate.
Luckily, another student asked a question and pulled us onto another (less sensitive) topic, for which I was thankful. Not because I don’t want to have difficult discussions in my classroom, but because I really didn’t know how to proceed. I want to foster critical thinking, but I don’t want to offend. And I don’t see critical thinking behind “that didn’t happen” and “I believe in God.” Belief, in that sense, is the absence of critical thought. It stopped me cold. Even some of the smartest students — and when I say “smart,” I’m saying “capable of independent, out-of-the-box thought” — were nodding along in agreement with the roadblock that was thrown down.
This frightens me. I teach a class which has, as some of its primary concerns, the structure of argument, the support of said argument with evidence, and the thoughtful communication of said argument. And this — their knee-jerk, casual and offhand dismissal of a well-researched, scientifically documented theory — well. It frightens me.