“By all means let's be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” - Richard Dawkins1
Bunny Lebowski: “Uli doesn't care about anything. He's a Nihilist.”
The Dude: “Ah, that must be exhausting.”
- “The Big Lebowski”2
Each year when kids enter high school they bring with them their experiences in their thoughts, ideas, morals and convictions. None of this is very original. How can it be? For 14 years they have been taught by older humans with the best intentions of ensuring that they ‘grow up right’. They get molded, trained, indoctrinated, encouraged, and sometimes warped by someone else's ideas and perspectives. It takes a lot of energy to chip away at that.
As a teacher, I think it is a total leap of faith by the parent that they would turn their kids over to an institution that will instruct their kids for 12 years. As a parent, I remember putting my 6 year old on the bus that first day and watching it roll away knowing that she now would be in the hands of other adults for a large part of her life. What responsibility we have in educating young people. In large part, the subject matter is the least of our worries. The most of our worries come from how students carry themselves, what they think and how they develop. It is also hard to impart wisdom in doses while not being a controlling figure in their lives. The most important thing we can teach our students is to have an open mind that is protected by skepticism.
I normally get information about what students think as a biology teacher. In many ways the kids come into my class ‘pre-loaded’ with ideas about the world. They carry their parent’s belief systems, and the morals and ethics built by their tribe. They also have been influenced about what happens after high school and what they might become. Many times when asked they are not very clued in about why they should believe what they believe or why they should do something like go to college. In part, they are carrying and sustaining themselves on their parent’s dreams and expectations. As they get older, these systems start to transform into other systems influenced heavily by their peer group, coaches and non-related adults. With new freedom they are exposed to foul language, temptations and perhaps things they should not be seeing or posting. On the other hand, they are for the first time taking adults ideas (other than their parents) into consideration.
So how do we teach our students to have an open mind, but to to also be skeptics? Kids pay attention to us in two ways: classroom instruction and how we relate outside of class. The low hanging fruit of controversy in the biology classroom is evolution. Most of my students carry their parent’s view of religion. In many cases it has been suggested that evolution will run contrary to their beliefs and to be on guard for that. Chipping away at the armor they are surrounded with is really not that difficult. Presenting biological evolution based on principles and examples normally does the trick. But am I trying to indoctrinate them into abandoning and jumping ship to another religion? Once their mind is open to the science and evidence, they must pass this information through their skeptical filter and determine for themselves whether there is enough evidence to consider evolutionary forces as a mechanism of micro- and macroevolution.
I tell them that being a skeptic does not mean being a cynic. The cynic weighs no evidence. They expect the idea in question to have a certain outcome. The skeptic processes the idea based on the evidence to reach some sort of conclusion. The conclusion may or may not be different from where they started. So many times I have had students who are very religious tell me that evolution makes sense but that after weighing the evidence they are uncomfortable with how it makes them feel in their religious upbringing. My intention is not to have them abandon their religious beliefs but to logically see where (or if) evolution fits into their overall system of understanding. The uncomfortable feeling in many cases indicates growth and consideration.
Vaccines are another biological issue where students enter the conversation with a preconceived mindset. Many students think that anyone who would not get a vaccine is stupid. When pressed, they often cannot tell me what a vaccine is or how it protects them. They also can’t tell me why not having a vaccine would potentially be dangerous to others. This is a classic case of cynicism. They are judging based on what they have been told and not through weighing evidence. It makes them uncomfortable to work through it but they leave with an open mind to the other side of the issue and the biological knowledge to decide for themselves.
One of the hardest things to teach is to be a skeptic when you are the only skeptic in the room. It is easy to be encouraged to go along with the crowd or not to rock boats. A great example of this is with climate change. In 1991 Bjorn Lomborg wrote The Skeptical Environmentalist. Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine, looked for any environmental scientists to debate Lomborg about his claims. Not one environmental scientist took him up on it, invoking “There is no debate” and “We don’t want to dignify the book”. One of the editors of Skeptic Magazine did debate Lomborg and a lively discussion ensued3. Schermer goes on to explain that his turnaround on global warming came from a number of diverse sources and experiences that included the Evangelical Climate Initiative, a TED conference and numerous publications on many sides of the topic. Still today the human contribution to climate change is one of the hardest discussions to have because so many scientists and science teachers won’t even entertain the thought of a skeptical thought on the issue.
It is riskier to ask questions and demand evidence before adhering to a cause or way of thinking than to just go along with the crowd. To be brave like this applies to taking drugs at a party as much as it does to a scientific concept. It also applies to how we approach and interact with kids in our schools. Many teachers are naturally cynical about kids and what they do. Case in point. In my school it seems like there are always too many kids in the hallway during classes than to be expected. The cynic in me might stop a kid, ask their name, hear their excuse and assume they are lying or trying to deflect the reason they are really out in the hall. The skeptical teacher in me would approach the same situation with an open mind but formulate an opinion based on the evidence the child gives for being in the hall. Kids learn from us in these ways. They see how we deal with them and our approach. By not assuming the worst in them and demanding evidence, better decisions can be made and they view us as more human in the process.
I feel that not teaching kids how have an open mind and how to be skeptical to protect their open mind, would be doing them a disservice. By working through examples on having an open mind to ideas by passing them through a skeptical filter, I hope to impart to kids how to make better decisions. I don’t hope to help them be like me or less like their parents, but more like themselves.
1. Dawkins, Richard, 1996. in "Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder," The Richard Dimbleby Lecture, BBC1 Television ↩ 2. Coen, Ethan and Coen, Joel, 1998. The Big Lebowski. Polygram Filmed Entertainment/Working Title. ↩ 3. Shermer, Michael, 2008. Confessions of a former environmental skeptic. http://www.michaelshermer.com/2008/04/confessions-of-a-former-environmental-skeptic/ ↩