I’m still on the fence about whether I could be content teaching at this school for the long term. Still not sure if helping open up a certain percentage of minds to valuing scientific methods and evidenced based conclusions is important enough, compared to maybe working with marginalized students.
My biology classes are in the midst a unit for which a key question is “What makes humans unique?” I had the students watch “Among the Wild Chimpanzees,” about the work of Jane Goodall, and gave reflection questions as homework. Back in class, I asked them to share their answers to the last question, “Has watching this film changed your views about the uniqueness of humans or our relationship with other animals in any way?” I expected a few different responses, but instead, got a resounding, “No!” from a chorus of voices, accompanied by smiles of what looked a little like triumph, though more impish than defiant. I was actually taken aback, and said, “That’s okay.! You don’t have to.” They are definitely on their guard, those conservative Christian youth, in case I might relativize their truth in some way.
In the prior small group discussion in which students were challenged to come to consensus about what makes humans unique, and then to narrow these things down to what was scientifically testable and verifiable, it came out that there was a strong consensus that humans have a soul. I said, okay, the fact that you all believe that is because you live in a community full of families that have brought you up that way. I asked what it might be like for someone who publicly declared that they disagreed. They started a bit at that idea. So, I said, you believe that, you know that, as have most people from all over the world, in various ways, for thousands of years. But the reason you know it is outside of the tools of science, in a different way of knowing. This type of knowledge is not discoverable by science.
The idea here is that humans are unique in their ability to use symbolic language, pass on cultural traditions, and develop complex technologies, and in an extended childhood through rites of passage, but that they also share lots of characteristics with other animals, especially chimps. They all saw how the chimps use intelligence to solve problems, made and used tools, educated their young, and maintained close emotional bonds with members of the community. They also made war and sometimes engaged in cannibalism and other kinds of nastiness not generally acceptable in the community, but also present in human society. I sent them home this time with the question, WHY do you think we have so much in common with chimps? Most of the students (maybe all) believe, that scientists will tell them that humans descended from apes, and that’s not okay. Will they say really, we aren’t similar to chimps, it only looks that way because of scientists’ bias? Or that God created the chimps the way they are just like he created us the way we are?
And so then we’ll move on to interpretations of human culture, to the way human communities foster children through a long childhood, and then, all bets are off as we move to identifying the characteristics of all living things, and then evolution and Earth’s history, both hot potato topics. Stay tuned.