Q: Do students ever object to learning your material for religious or moral reasons?
A: This has happened to me. And wow, is it ever unpleasant.
I've taught things that offended people's deeply-cherished beliefs regarding human sexuality, American society, and the nature of life itself. And I've tried to empathize with them; it's quite psychically painful when something that you've been taught for a decade or more gets questioned or—even worse—shown to be simply untrue. It's unsettling to have an idea that you've just accepted as fact is suddenly called into doubt.
Now here is where human psychology fails us. The ideal response when presented with contrary evidence to a long-held belief is to evaluate the evidence and the belief; if the evidence is sound, and if said belief is impossible in light of this new evidence, then one should modify or discard the belief. If you've read any of my columns here, you know that we very rarely get the ideal outcome in this world. What most often happens instead is that people reaffirm their belief and disregard the evidence. This effect is a type of confirmation bias called belief perseverance; we become emotionally attached to our beliefs, and most of us are invested in the idea that we aren't complete dolts. So when we are faced with evidence that contradicts our beliefs, most of us respond with anger. We're not angry that we've been deceived for so long; oh, no. We're angry that anything might make us—and remember, we're smart—think that we've been duped for our entire lives.
So what does that mean for a classroom? Well, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, everyone is entitled to his (or her) opinion, but not his (or her) own facts. I've had to tell students that no matter what their beliefs, the facts that I present will be testable material, and any principled stands that they take against the best data we have in this field will be treated as wrong answers. If they don't want to be educated, they shouldn't be in my classroom. That sounds harsh, but education isn't always an easy process. I can remember many occasions in my own schooling where I was upset that things I'd thought for decades turned out not to be true, so I am sympathetic to the students who have told me that, say, homosexuality is a sin, or that wealth in the US just can't be that unequally distributed simply because they believe otherwise. But they're wrong. And I tell them that I used to have untrue beliefs, but that I've worked hard to follow the evidence instead of reflexively defending my beliefs. It's not easy, but it's extremely worthwhile. It's the evaluation of explanations against evidence and the rejection of ones that don't conform to what we observe that is the very basis of science.
Now, our understanding of reality is far from perfect, and it is, of course, contingent on newer and better information. But what we've learned by observing, evaluating, and rejecting bad explanations has improved our understanding of ourselves, our societies, our world, and the universe by untold orders of magnitude in the last few hundred years. So it's worth the difficult journey of overcoming our own confirmation biases to see the world as it really is. For the final word, I'll go to another quote; I'm not using quotes as an argument from authority, but rather because, some times, a person says something better than I ever could. In this case, I'm going to call on the words of Albert Einstein, who said that "All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike—but it is the most precious thing we have."
Have you ever had moral qualms about material taught in a class?
Mr. Toche taught statistics, sociology, and human sexuality to college students for four years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He saw, learned, and experienced more horrors than you can well imagine in that time.