If you read past today’s folderol about the Tweeter-in-Chief, you’ll get to an article about the first day of school for the new curriculum in Turkey. From this point forward, students will be spared learning about Darwin. At university, those who opt-in will have a chance to learn about the man credited with first formulating and then working out in detail the theory that species evolve. And those who opt out will be spared the whole messy business.
We are surrounded by light, and yet we live in darkness.
I can safely say that today is the first day I’ve ever given any thought to what the Turkish national curriculum is. I don’t say this with pride; I’m just conceding my parochialism. I have spent considerable time thinking about curricular issues at my home university, though. Here, one could encounter Darwin or not; it would really depend on the route one chose to take through the labyrinth of “core” requirements. Do students in the U.S. graduate from high school able to articulate the gist of Darwin’s theory of evolution? Are they able to say why it matters, one way or the other, whether Darwin is taught or not? Do the answers to those questions change if we make them about college students in the U.S.?
In the classes I teach, it is not uncommon for students to say to me: “I am not a Christian, so I know nothing about the religion.” Some are embarrassed by this; some are not. Yesterday, in my office hours, I had a student offer a version of the Annunciation to me that was wrapped around Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, and conflated the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. As far as I can tell, the ignorance in the student population about the general tenets of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism is only slightly greater. Of course, there’s no required course in World Religions, either at the high school level or in the “core” requirements at my home institution, so what most students know about religious belief extends no further than the edge of their personal experience.
Of course, we’ve reached a point where the difference between education and advocacy has been so blurred that it is now understood that to teach anything is to advocate for that thing. My students express this general attitude when they apologize to me for not being a believer: they assume that, by assigning Genesis and reading it with care, I am expressing my belief in the text at hand, rather than my modeling what it means to have a trained mind. I won’t speculate here about the root cause of this conflation of education and advocacy. I’ll note only that one direct consequence of the confusion is a deadening of curiosity. In a tsunami of digital information, students elect not to use search engines to seek out what they do not know. It is as if they thought their search histories might someday become public and they would be called to account for having an interest not only in their own educations, but in education in general.
If the digital age has, in fact, plunged us into darkness, it has also provided us with a foundational infrastructure for mounting a Re-Enlightenment. If we use our classrooms to cultivate curiosity-driven research; if we allow for open-ended explorations; if we reward individual efforts to venture into what defines “the unknown” for students individually, we will be creating spaces where students acquire the skills necessary to become lifelong learners.