Monday, May 11, 2009

Survival of the Fittest or of the Fortunate

As I read this letter, written by a teacher who was sued for being critical of creationism, I can only think how lucky I was that my exercise in critical thinking did not torpedo my career.

At Texas Tech, I taught the Freshman seminar for a couple of years to make some extra cash. It was a course aimed at preparing the new students for life in Lubbock and at TTU. For a week before the term started, and then for several one hour sessions for the first few weeks of the fall semester, we taught time management, money management, note-taking, and other college survival skills, with an emphasis on critical thinking. One of the topics of the course was diversity--that wherever the students were coming from, TTU was going to include people that were unfamiliar--different races, different linguistic backgrounds, different income levels, and even different religions.

So, one of the exercises we were given was to ask the students what an average Texas Tech student was, so that we could realize how much of the campus would be different from the assumed average. The students quickly got the idea that some of their classmates were from places that were smaller than Lubbock and from places that were larger (rural folks, urban folks); that not all TTU students were of Anglo background, etc. It took awhile from them to acknowledge that there was racial diversity, but the big challenge was the religious one. None of the students imagined this as an identity that might vary. So, when I asked if how many people in the group were Christian, all raised their hands--and their notion of Christianity was a pretty narrow definition (Catholics would not have fit, nor would non-evangelicals).

So, one of the students asked: "If we are all Christian (missing the point of the exercise that a significant minority of students at TTU, if not in this group, were not Christian), why do THEY teach evolution?" This was not a question that I was expecting and was outside the focus of the course, BUT we were told to encourage critical thinking skills. So, I turned the question around and asked them, why do you think THEY teach evolution at Texas Tech?

Well, the answers varied, but mostly centered around the theme of: this is what others believe so we should understand it. Finally, after much of this, I suggested to them that evolution (its logic, its applications, etc) are foundational to physics, geology, biology, chemistry, medicine, economics, political science, sociology and beyond. The students uncritically accepted my take. But floored me with the follow up--"So, why don't they teach creation science here?" Since this was a few years before the rise of pastafarianism, I didn't have a ready answer that would not require an explanation of the definition of oxymoron. Instead, I said that we had spent enough time on a tangent and tried to get us back to the central ideas of that day's material.

And now a teacher in California lost a lawsuit for disparaging creationism. Lovely. TTU did back up a biology professor who got into some trouble over this issue--refusing to write letters of recommendation to medical school aspirants if they did not buy into evolution. So my career was probably not at risk....

I will always remember that experience, less because of the fear of a lawsuit, but what it told me about the students and their pre-TTU environment. They had clearly been warned about the teaching of evolution at TTU and the apparent refusal to teach creation science (aka intelligent design). This is not why I left TTU, but it is one of the reasons why I feel more comfortable and less alienated in another country in an area where I am not particularly skilled in the language of the local majority than I did in West Texas.

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