A Response to Larry SangerPosted: December 6, 2011 | Author: Greg Linster | Filed under: Philosophy | 15 Comments »
Yesterday I posted an essay titled “Why It’s Morally Wrong to Let a Student Believe in Creationism“. Larry Sanger responded with a thoughtful piece here. In what follows, I respond to his piece (I was going to simply leave a comment on his blog, but it got too long and I figured it would be better to post here).
First off, thanks for the thoughtful response. You seem like a very nice guy yourself, Larry! As a fan of your work, I find it to be a great honor to engage in debate with you.
I think you bring up some very interesting points and I think if we were to discuss these issues in person, we may realize we agree on more than initially meets the eye. I do, however, have some disagreements with you based on your response. Let’s start with what we can agree on.
You wrote: “I always found the tendency of some college professors to teach their own pet views to be extremely annoying. What I believe is my own business. I have no desire to be part of your project to transform the world in your image; as a student, I regard myself as a free agent and merely want the tools to shape my own beliefs.” I too have found these types of instructors who teach their pet views very annoying (especially in economics courses). We’re not talking about “pet views” though; we’re talking about scientific facts. You seem to be implying that I’m trying to change people’s beliefs about things I cannot possibly claim to know. I can assure you that I’m not, I’m merely trying to uncover truths about the nature of reality by separating fact from fiction given the tool of reason that we humans are endowed with. We don’t know a whole lot, but we do have some knowledge.
I would hardly characterize what I’m suggesting as “indoctrination” (Is it really possible to be indoctrinated with objective scientific facts anyway?) or using “force”, so let’s set those misleading terms aside. I would call what I’m suggesting stating scientific fact in an authoritative manner. I do suspect, however, that many students may have been actually indoctrinated by their religious teachers. I know this because I was indoctrinated with Christianity as a child. What I’m suggesting, then, is that teachers have an obligation to call things by their proper name. In other words, I’m suggesting we avoid euphemisms. As such, scientific facts should be labeled as facts and verifiable mythology should be labeled as mythology.
And who is a teacher to decide what is fact and fiction? Alas, this is where it can get tricky and this is where I think your concerns largely stem from. I too see reason to be concerned about teachers professing something as a fact when it is not a fact in actuality. I’m confused by your assertions though, because if I’m understanding your position correctly, you’re suggesting that a teacher shouldn’t call Norse mythology Norse Mythology. You seem to be suggesting, by implication, that we should absolutely ban the use of the word “mythology” in academic settings so as not to offend those who choose to believe in the mythology over the facts. If it wasn’t clear, I think believing in mythology is an individual’s prerogative; however, I think educators have the obligation to make them aware of the facts and to encourage critical thinking.
You wrote: “Now, it might sound strange to call the inculcation of belief in the conclusions of science “indoctrination,” but it is not the quality of the belief that makes for indoctrination, it is the method whereby it is taught.” I must admit, as I previously mentioned, this does indeed sound downright bizarre, especially coming from someone who believes in scientific facts. So as long as we eradicate the “forcefulness”, as I think we both suggest, then it would seem that we agree on this point.
You later continue by writing: “If you’re saying that you want to repudiate student belief, to label student beliefs as “mythology,” you’re not in favor of persuading recalcitrant students with argument; you want to shame them.” That seems like quite a leap to make. Another way to look at it would be that you are trying to help spare them future embarrassment by helping them hurdle the irrational belief instinct. Telling a student that there is a difference between facts and mythology is not necessarily degrading or shaming them, despite what you say. There are tasteful ways to discuss such matters in a classroom setting.
I’ll ask this question again: should we be allowed to call anything mythology in academia? As I asserted at the end of my piece, it seems insensitive and unfair to call some religious beliefs mythology and others justifiable beliefs. For whatever reason, certain religions seem to get preferential treatment in academia over others. I think we would be wise to think critically about why this is so.
Finally, you wrote: “We can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, with a grasp of math, to deny that 2+2=4.” I, for one, can sympathize with those people who can’t really understand what that would mean. This is because I also can’t really understand what it would mean for an adult person, endowed with the ability to reason and be logical, to deny that evolution is true.