Thirty years ago, when I began my teaching career, I taught a course with a unit on natural selection. I was qualified to teach this, having just finished a PhD in systematics; what’s more, I had spent the summer reading a book about where natural selection applied. So I could lay out the conditions clearly and create a wide variety of case studies for my students to apply it to.
But I had three students who simply could not do it.
I spent hours in my office with them, going over the basic steps, but when I gave them case studies – even ones we had just gone over together – they could not apply the main concepts.
These students became thorns in my paw for other reasons as well, but I have since realized that they probably simply didn’t believe in evolution. It’s easy to forget that students come into your class as adults, with their own positions and opinions even on the topics you think you will introduce them to.
I couldn’t answer their questions because they never asked them and I was too green to even realize those questions were out there, much less make my classroom welcoming to them. It’s only come to me lately that this was an instance of a bigger issue – deciding when a debate is settled, and the fact that it seems debates never really are settled.
“The subject is closed.” “This discussion is over.” “Let’s not open that can of worms.”
Then along comes somebody who does open that can of worms, and none of us know how
to make the argument that we’ve relegated to history books. Or worse, none of us even hears the discussion because we haven’t been included, people seeing that for us the topic is settled. Nobody asks us why they should believe evolution; they just refuse to do it on our exams. Nobody asks us why they should accept Black Lives Matter or avoid the alt.right, they just go off and talk about it with people for whom it’s not settled.
Why am I thinking about this today? Middlebury, of course. The people who opposed Charles Murray’s talk were very invested in declaring the conversation over. But they couldn’t have accomplished that, even if they’d succeeded in preventing his talk. They could only have sidelined themselves.
The conversation is going on, with or without the people who wish it were over. And colleges are about teaching, about new people appearing every darned year with no knowledge of the topic, about conversations never being over and topics never being closed. A new generation appears who have never even heard the basic, most taken-for-granted things in our fields.
One of my friends in grad school said ‘How can you stand the thought of teaching the same thing over and over and over again?’
‘When I get bored with it I can always quit,’ I said; and 30 years later, I have never gotten bored with it.
If we can’t stand the thought of nothing ever being settled, we shouldn’t be teachers. Being part of the endless repeating conversation is our job, our privilege, our responsibility and our opportunity. If you’re bored with it, you should quit.