As the next to last student left the lab, she disconnected her call. Whomever she was talking with, the conversation had seemed intense to the instructor, a first year tenure at this red state community college. The class is physics, a subject the instructor carries much passion for. He’d disclosed to the class that their final would consist of each submitting a creation story that explained how they happen to be here, utilizing all they learned during the course of the semester. This one remaining student had raised an eyebrow in response to his assignment. She approached with a worried look in her eye.

“Dr. David, will I flunk the class if I include Biblical references in my creation story? I love hearing about black holes and all this physics stuff, but I believe the Earth is six thousand years old and I can’t go against my beliefs when writing my paper.”

Dr. David had mentioned this possibility to me before he accepted the position. He was unsure how he would handle the question then and he was only slightly better prepared for it now. He quite firmly believes in the creation story science has constructed from rigorous observation and scrupulous projection. One of his students had even labeled him an evangelist for the passion with which he lectured, a characterization that made his skin crawl. He admits to the passion but he would never characterize himself as an evangelist, but upon reflection, he had to agree with his student’s assertion. Perhaps he is an evangelist, but he’s not promoting any faith-based acceptance. He expects proof rather than speculation, and proof requires no faith for acceptance.

“If by Biblical references, you mean counter-arguments intended to rebut what science tells us, I think it could limit your ability to pass the course. This is, after all, a physics class. I don’t expect you to change your beliefs but I do expect you to demonstrate knowledge of accepted science. You do well enough on the multiple choice quizzes. Why does this assignment pose more difficulty?”

“I can regurgitate what I’ve heard or read all day long, and it’s no stretch to choose the right answer, but writing the same stuff in prose, that just feels different. I don’t think I can do that.”

Here we have a dilemma, indeed. Dr. David followed up that brief after-class chat with a longer, more detailed response to her question which doubtless more firmly impaled her on that dilemma’s horns. To his mind, the choice seemed no more challenging than some other college courses. The purpose, after all, of a college education has been to nudge or shove the student into different ways of considering the world. In a writing class, one might be assigned to create a piece of fiction without requiring any sort of belief in the subject of the piece from the student. One can study Marxism without needing to become a Marxist. To Dr. David, these represent both the cost and the benefit of a college education, but his student could not quite accept this coping strategy.

“I feel like I will betray my faith if I write the creation story you’ve assigned,” she pouted, clearly looking to her teacher to save her from this significant damnation, but Dr. David’s not in the salvation business. He would not want to swipe this significant learning opportunity from this bright and capable student. He could and would help by clarifying the boundaries around the assignment, but he would not, clearly could not open the gate she imagined him to be keeper of.

I asked Dr. David what his department’s policy was around this issue, and he wasn’t sure. I speculated that perhaps more than half of the legislature that approves his school’s budget probably share his student’s belief, but he replied that he knew his department head was tenaciously agnostic and other instructors had made disparaging comments in staff meetings about ignorant creationists. Dr. David listened without comment through these discussions, looking for cues for what might pass as acceptable reactions. As a first year tenure, he’s very aware that he’s on academic probation, and wary of inadvertently violating even unwritten rules. Still, the more he considered his student’s request, the more he convinced himself that he could not possibly grant it.

I had a few teachers who challenged my world view when I attended university. Economics seemed heartless. Business Ethics seemed simple-minded. Calculus, simply impossible. With each of these courses, I imagine I felt every bit as challenged as Dr. David’s student feels. I could plead for a favorable ruling from the judge but it never did me any good. I could not influence a change of the rules to insulate my delicate sensibilities. I had to figure a way through or around the challenge. I could, perhaps, just shift my world view, but that’s much more difficult than it might seem for none of us are especially aware of our world view. It’s not just a list of Thou Shalt and Thou Shalt Not instructions, but the very lens through which we intake our experience. I could, as I did with the dreaded demon calculus, just chart a course around the requirement and thereby successfully maintain what my calculus professor insisted was a naive world view.

Whatever the subject, real learning hurts. I am a noisy learner, complaining all along the way. My Cost Accounting book lost its cover after about the hundredth time it bounced off my study room wall. I feel the walls threatening to tumble down in the presence of new and orthogonal information and I do not pleasantly mount those gallows. I have so far more or less successfully charted courses around and through the encumbrances to serene belief life has passed me. I know the pattern well. It follows the same general track as grieving. I minored in denial at school, completed significant extra credit work in anger management, for which I got piddling credit. I dabbled in bargaining and narrowly missed a post-graduate scholarship in acceptance. I know the pattern and because I know it, I despise it. Still, it seems to be the way it seems to be. If that sounds like back-handed acceptance, so be it.

Dr. David’s student seems to have enrolled in something in addition to her Introduction To Physics class. There might just be an unlabeled philosophy lab associated with the core work. Nobody ever expects such a twist when reviewing course offerings. Then, each class seems like a straightforward topic, angst omitted. Later, a real crisis might emerge, thank heavens.

I believe that Dr. David’s student is perfectly free to believe whatever she chooses to believe, even Creationism. At first, any belief seems just as straightforward as a course syllabus. The fresh convert has yet to encounter threatening counter experiences. It seems to me that belief gets better if it can survive these. And this student’s beliefs seem particularly prone to threatening turbulence. Standing crosswise to any cultural insistence amounts to the hardest of hard work. Some turn cynical. Others even more insistent. Dr. David invited her to see how she might integrate what first seems like intractable opposites like good and evil, truth and lie. It might seem like a life or death struggle, but that’s a completely normal first impression when encountering any particularly juicy dilemma.

Dr. David doesn’t know how his student might resolve her life dilemma, but he seems like the perfect mentor as she struggles her way through it. He does not expect her to believe anything, for his class is not called Introduction To Belief In Physics. He holds compelling evidence. She holds compelling faith. It’s unavoidably her job to integrate the two. His job, to hold the edge of one component of the integration. I can’t wait to see how she resolves this one. Neither can Dr. David.

©2015 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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