To Teach Or Not to Teach

Something happened at La Sierra University, a small Seventh-day Adventist church in California (see “Creating Controversy”) that begs the question of how one holds onto their own personal beliefs when such beliefs contradict or are in conflict with institutional beliefs. In addition, how much academic freedom is to be allowed or granted when the teaching of a subject runs counter to the beliefs and goals of the institution where the course is taught?

It appears that the issue at La Sierra University is one of belief and freedom and how much does the one impact on the other. A student took a capstone course in biology and was required to write a paper in which he stated that he would address the geological issues presented in the class, demonstrating that he understood the data and the mainstream interpretations of that data. He would then be allowed to take issue with that interpretation, in line with his beliefs as a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But, according to the professor who graded the paper, there was only a superficial demonstration of knowledge and it was done with apologetic skepticism. It does not say it in the article but it may be construed that the student was very upset with the grade that he received for the paper and for the course.

The issue at La Sierra University appears to be whether or not a university sponsored by a denomination has the power to dictate what is taught in the classroom, especially when what is taught is in opposition to the stated beliefs of the church. This is not the first time this has happened (see “The Dilemma of Faith and Science” and “The Challenge of Education”). It is just that we are again faced with the dilemma of what we teach and what we do not teach.

I personally don’t believe that the student has any ground to stand on in reference to the grade he received. The ground rules for the paper appeared to have been established in advance and the student failed to meet those ground rules. From the tone of the article, I would even think that he may have even gone out of his way to ignore and defy those very rules.

And the university has the right to say to its faculty that tenure is only available to those faculty members who are members of the denomination. That’s fair and, again, it’s a rule that’s in place when the individual faculty member is hired.

But again, it appears that there are those who feel that the teaching of evolution, not as a fact (please don’t go there) but as a normative and preferred worldview is something akin to letting the fox into the henhouse. There are those who feel that something should not be taught if it is in direct conflict with the tenets of faith. And there is the problem!

As an educator, I must respect the beliefs of my students and I expect the students to respect my beliefs. To that end, I would not teach something if I did not believe it. Fortunately, most chemical theories are pretty well established, so that is not a problem. But I will admit that I long for the good old days of the philosopher’s stone; it would have made organic synthesis so much easier. 🙂

And I would have, some years ago, said to a student, what many parents are saying today, learn the material for the course and then go your own way after the course is over. But you cannot do that in a world in which you interact with other people. And, when it comes to matters of faith, I do not see how one can expect a university to build the faith of its students. It can offer information about the faith and it can offer comparisons of the one faith with another. But no university can ever build the faith of a student; the student must do that individually and privately.

I will be blunt and honest; every time I read one of these articles where persons of faith attack evolution because it threatens to destroy the faith, I have to wonder how strong that faith is. I hear from the right side of the aisle how our universities and colleges are destroying the faith of our youth and I have to wonder how strong that faith was before those children went away to school.

Education is meant to provide information; it should provide the means for understanding, analyzing, and comprehending that information. It should challenge the student to see where he or she is and where he or she is headed; sadly and too often, that is not the case. And it is made worse when those outside education try to throttle or control free thought.

I applaud the efforts of La Sierra University to offer courses that many see as questioning the tenets of faith of the denomination. I applaud the efforts of the administrators who protect the faculty who present such alternative thoughts. And I decry the efforts of those who would limit or deny such efforts in the name of the faith, for it only tells me that their own faith is not as strong as they say it is.

As teachers, our mandate is to teach our students how to think, not what to think. As people of faith, our mandate is not to teach what to believe but to show what the results of belief can and should be. It is up to the student what to do with that teaching.


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