Empathize with Racists? Really?

Historians—especially K-12 teachers and public historians—have been struggling with the challenges of teaching the history of slavery. It is time for us to learn from the dearly bought experiences of our science-education colleagues. The hardest lesson of all? Sometimes it’s not about being right.

BBC slave plantation

Sometimes tourists say some nasty things. What should we do about it?

First, some background: You’ve probably seen the disturbing stories lately about how difficult it can be to teach tourists about the history of slavery. At Monticello, for example, tourists ask guides not to focus so much on the negative stuff. In South Carolina, tourists sometimes actually defend the institution of slavery. As the BBC reported recently,

“Slavery was not that bad – it’s probably the number one thing we hear,” says plantation tour guide Olivia Williams.

“To my face, people have said: Well, they had a place to sleep. They had meals, they had vegetables.”

It’s not only museums that are having problems. As one contributor to the NYT’s 1619 project described, the history of slavery in the USA has long been ignored by schools, at best. In her words,

It’s ugly. For generations, we’ve been unwilling to do it. Elementary-school teachers, worried about disturbing children, tell students about the “good” people, like the abolitionists and the black people who escaped to freedom, but leave out the details of why they were protesting or what they were fleeing. Middle-school and high-school teachers stick to lesson plans from outdated textbooks that promote long-held, errant views. That means students graduate with a poor understanding of how slavery shaped our country, and they are unable to recognize the powerful and lasting effects it has had.

So what are history teachers to do? There are a lot of resources out there to help students understand the history of slavery, like Teaching Tolerance, PBS, and Stanford History Education Group materials.

But there’s another place to look that might not seem obvious at first. Like historians, science educators have been struggling for generations to break through popular hostility toward central scientific ideas. Most powerfully these days, many people have a strong visceral distrust of any ideas about human evolution and human-caused climate change.

How have science educators grappled with these challenges? What can historians learn?

In the latest edition of Reports of the National Center for Science Education, Kate Carter describes the ways she trains tour guides at the Smithsonian. Carter knows that many visitors will come already hostile to the messages of mainstream science. They are often already convinced that concepts of deep time and human-caused climate change are bogus. For example, she describes one typical couple that walked away from the information concluding, “There are two sides to every story.”

rncse empathy

Can history educators learn from this kind of science-ed training?

What are educators to do? We can’t just throw up our hands and conclude that some people are just not willing to learn about science or history. Carter suggests we avoid a simple “rookie mistake.” Instead of preparing to bombard our students or visitors with the evidence for our cases—whether it be about human evolution or American slavery—we should start with a very different idea: EMPATHY.

Make no mistake: Carter is not suggesting we avoid the subject, or agree that there are simply two sides to every story. No, she agrees that communicating the best information about science is our main goal. To get there, though, she suggests beginning by trying to understand the people with whom we’re speaking. As she explains,

While effective and accurate communication of science is a crucial element, it is not enough to reach the most skeptical populations. By taking time to assign real human emotions to the visitors, volunteers can better empathize and use this newfound understanding to decide the best way to share their evidence.

Seems obvious, right? But when it comes to teaching the full, unvarnished, unpleasant history of American slavery, empathizing with resistant listeners can be extremely difficult. If a tour guide tries to understand a visitor who doesn’t want to learn about Thomas Jefferson’s slaves, is she continuing the lamentable tradition of overlooking the truth? If a teacher spends time trying to understand why her students reject the evidence for the brutality of slave markets and slave labor, is she guilty of contributing to the long, shameful silence of those crimes against humanity?

In short, it seems like the time for polite empathy about the history of American racism and slavery is over. Teachers and tour guides might blanch at the prospect of bonding with racist tourists and students.

In spite of these important challenges, we can still learn from our science-ed colleagues. No one is suggesting any kind of watering-down or truckling, either to neo-creationists or neo-confederates. All we want to do is begin a conversation by filling in culture-war trenches and building connections so that a real conversation can take place. If we don’t start with that, no amount of proof, evidence, or explanation will do any good.

Put It Up!

I admit, at first I pooh-poohed the story as just another example of wacky boorish Trumpism. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m hoping the Smithsonian will relent.

maga smithsonian 3

“Unashamed,” indeed.

Thanks to the ever-watchful John Fea, I’ve been following the story of artist Julian Raven and his Trump fan art. Raven has sued the Smithsonian to force the museum to display his portrait of Trump, “Unafraid & Unashamed.” So far, no dice. The gallery told Raven the painting was too big (it weighs 300 pounds), too political, and too terrible.

But the people love it. Attendees at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference lined up to have their pictures taken in front of the monstrous painting.

As Raven told the Daily Beast, the inspiration for this work came to him in a flash when he saw Trump speak back in 2015:

I just had the words go through my mind: ‘unafraid and unashamed’. . . . The image in my mind was this soaring flagpole, a U.S. flag pole falling to the ground. Right before it falls to the ground, an eagle swoops in and snatches it.

So far, the artist has had no luck in court. One judge informed him that the National Portrait Gallery does not have a Constitutional duty to display his painting. Yet Raven perseveres, complaining that the Smithsonian has trampled his First Amendment right to free speech, and now his Fifth Amendment right to due process. (He says his sales have been hurt by the negative publicity.)

What should the Smithsonian do? Put it up!

Here’s why: Nothing could capture the Trump era better than this gauche, over-sized, childish portrait, composed in a flurry on a sudden impulse and surprisingly beloved by conservatives. Even better, the artist is complaining—unburdened by any knowledge of the actual Constitution—that he has a First Amendment right to cram his painting into the Smithsonian. Furthermore, Raven insists that a left-wing conspiracy is the only thing keeping his portrait out of the National Gallery.

When future generations want to understand Trumpism, what could be better than this yuge painting, accompanied by a placard (or better yet, video interview) explaining the artist’s schlock-vs.-Goliath story?

The Right Recipe for Science Missionaries

Thoughtful exposition? Or bacon ‘n’ eggs? Rick Potts is trying to spread the word about evolutionary science to America’s creationists. Is he taking the best approach?

As described in the Smithsonian Magazine, Potts hopes his traveling exhibition can reach those “rural, religious, remote” places that the Smithsonian “deemed ‘challenging’—places where the researchers suspected that evolution might still be a contentious subject.”

ephratastatue

Too much for some…

To this observer, Potts seems to be on the right track. I’m arguing in my new book about American creationism that the problem is not knowledge but something else. No amount of yelling or state standards will puncture resistance to mainstream evolutionary science. Rick Potts seems to agree. As the Smithsonian article describes,

Potts was going for something more subtle: Not conversion, but conversation.

“Our goal is to lower the temperature,” he says.

Could it work? One disgusted local from Ephrata, Pennsylvania felt offended from the get-go. She was freaked out by a statue of a naked early-human mother and baby at the entrance to the library hosting the exhibit. As she put it,

Library abortions would probably be more offensive . . . but that would probably be it.

If even this most diplomatic attempt at spreading the word about evolution is too much for some creationists, then are all attempts to converse with creationists doomed to failure? Are some people and some communities so firmly set against mainstream science that even a friendly, caring outreach project like this is too much?

Writing for BioLogos, Brad Kramer points out the obvious problem and suggests a difficult solution. As he explains, no matter how big the smiles were, the science missionaries were still obviously missionaries. And nothing is easier to resist for religious people than sermons from another religion.

So is there no hope? The problem is bigger than science, bigger than religion. The root of the difficulty is TRUST. What can be done? As Kramer argues, the answer isn’t very attractive for those of us who want quick solutions. Kramer suggests bacon and eggs:

If all Rick Potts had done in Ephrata was spend a month eating breakfast with people at local diners, introducing himself as an evolutionary scientist, and explaining that he doesn’t hate Christians, an enormous amount of good would have been accomplished.

Human Origins at the Smithsonian

What should we do to teach evolution better?  ILYBYGTH contributor David Long addressed that topic a little while back at the Smithsonian Institution.

The panel discussion was part of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program’s Broader Social Impacts Committee.  Long, a science education specialist and anthropologist at George Mason University, discussed some of the implication of his work, including his must-read book Evolution and Religion in American Education: An Ethnography.

David spoke for about thirty minutes.  Then the assembled panel offered reflections.

Panelist Connie Bertka of the Smithsonian committee asked the smart question: “What can the scientific community do?”

Fred Edwords of the American Humanist Association offered a striking example of the deep misunderstandings of creationism among outsiders.  Edwords made the point that a good education requires that students emerge different from when they go in.  Naturally.  But Edwords did not seem to recognize that the nature of this educational transformation is precisely the question at issue.  How should education transform young people?  Should education affirm or challenge existing religious or ideological commitments among the young?  Edwords seemed to assume that any good education would lead to a transformation in favor of evolution, in favor of challenging religious traditions.

Nancy Howell, who teaches about religion and science at a Methodist seminary, made the important point that denominational background can’t really be used to predict affinity for creationism or evolution.  That is, people of different sectarian backgrounds often embrace or reject creationism.  At times, people go against the teachings of their own denominations, without even knowing it.  Due to this splintering effect, assumptions about the numbers of creationists based on denominational affiliations must be viewed very skeptically.

At one point, an audience member suggested that creationism can be eliminated by the teaching of “critical thinking.”  Dr. Long replied diplomatically but correctly that we can’t assume too much about the meanings of teaching “critical thinking.”  After all, ardent creationists have long insisted that their programs are the only ones teaching critical thinking.  Young-earth Guru Ken Ham, for example, insists that creationists are the only ones resisting the intellectual bullying of evolution.  Only young-earth creationists,  Ham argues, don’t merely parrot the shibboleths of intellectually empty evolutionism.  Only young-earth creationists, Ham says, are doing any critical thinking when it comes to evolution.

So, in the end, what should we do to teach evolution better?

At the very least, we can take an hour or so to watch this presentation and discussion.