Conservatives & Higher Education

“I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of the peace.” ~ Baruch Spinoza

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

In “As Basic Science is Politicized, Conservatives Become Suspicious of Higher Ed,” Dr. Darrell Arnold recently shared his experience discussing basic scientific truths in his college philosophy classes. (I’ve had similar experiences.) Here is his essay.

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 Ark. 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 ark. 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 a 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.

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3 thoughts on “Conservatives & Higher Education

  1. “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?… We ask how a believer can read the bible as true metaphorically while rejecting literalism. ”

    Religion often attracts people of lesser intelligence, and some insane people on the streets. Students, though, might be bright but– at their age– gullible; frequently from gullible families. A smart religiously inclined student might reply to the quote above, and other justified skeptical questions of which you write, that the arc is partly real (there were great floods during the period 1,500 to 500 BCE) yet also a fairy tale to make the Bible more appealing to readers of all ages.
    Naturally, in a secular college/university it is not required that religion be taken seriously. On the other hand, there’s little purpose in arguing with a student from a religious family background:

    “…doesn’t a conservative voice on these issues of science need to be stifled?

    Makes Believers more defensive + reactive when they are challenged.

    Write “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”,

    on a Believing student’s term paper and have them understand you would discuss the issue with them, knowing all the while you’ll both go ’round in circles but that you’ll have done the best an educator can do.

  2. The eruption of identity politics on-campus (an undercurrent for most of the past half-century, and a prominent element of media attention within the past decade) muddies the waters of “conservative skepticism of higher education.” I don’t consider myself conservative, but find much to fret about in the modern definition of liberal.
    I would attribute much of this to the increased emphasis on four-year college as a necessary element of a complete education for nearly EVERYONE. More demand means higher tuition means more college debt … for a lot of people who will either drop out or find little advantage in their employment prospects despite their degree.
    Instead, they tribe up, explaining their struggles as a product of a system that favors white males. (That exists, but there’s a lot of static in the signal resulting from treating tertiary education as a rung on a ladder, rather than as an alternative path to, say, entering a trade.)

  3. Len: Though my comment gets me a bit off topic, I’ll make it any way. Your comment got me thinking about Democratic politics. I think that there is an interesting discussion to be had on trade schools. Traditionally the pro-union Democrats were quite vocally in support of trade schools. I’m not sure how anecdotal my sense of things are, but it seems to be a greater talking point among conservatives today. I’d suggest that Bernie Sanders and Elisabeth Warren might want this on their radars, though, so as not to allow this traditional Democratic talking points to be taken over by Republicans and to underscore their support for working Americans.

    The Democratic platform is much more oriented to working class Americans who would traditionally go to trade schools — until we come to some issues of identity politics. Trump has managed through misstatements to garner the support of much of the working class though, because he talks like he’s listening to their needs, even if his policies undermine their interests. I hope that the Democrats don’t make the mistakes of 2016 of allowing this to happen again. Sanders in particular won’t. But some of the more moderate Democrats in the field might — in which case Trump might win because he seems to speak the language of many of the working class, even if its nothing but a smoke and mirrors routine that he does while instituting policies that harm them to the core.

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