Tuesday, January 13, 2009

When Should Teachers Lie?

Imagine a high school science teacher being asked about evolution by a youngster from a religiously conservative family. The student might say something like this: “My church teaches, and my family believes, that the earth is just 6,000 years old. But the text claims that the earth is nearly 800,000 times older. What am I to think?”

Clearly the claim that the earth is a mere 6,000 years old lacks scientific credibility, and our teacher knows it. How, then, should he or she respond?

Here are some possibilities. You decide how our teacher might best respond and still honor her profession.

1. “A 6,000 year old earth is not supported by scientific evidence.”
2. “The Biblical account might best be understood as an allegory.”
3. “Which account do you think is more credible?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents and pastor.”
5. “If you believe that the earth is 6,000 years old, it is - for you.”
6. “Your parents and pastor are correct.”

Answer 1 is the unvarnished truth, 2 offers an alternative, and 3 begs the question. Regarding 4, the student knows what his parents think; he wants an answer from the teacher. Answer 5 is evasive, though it’s possibly wise. Response 6 is a lie, pure and simple. Which of these responses can our high school instructor choose and still properly call themselves a teacher?

Given teachers’ compensation and often shoddy treatment, it might be na├»ve to expect them to take risks for honesty’s sake. But you’re not asked to decide what is prudent here. You’re only deciding what this teacher must do to remain true to the essential nature of teaching.

Does anything change if we reduce the grade level? Let’s take this inquiry to first grade. Six-year-olds frequently ask their teacher if Santa Claus is real. Here are some possible responses.

1. “No, Santa Claus is not real.”
2. “Santa Claus represents the spirit of giving.”
3. “Do you think Santa is real?”
4. “That’s a question for your parents.”
5. “If you believe in him, he’s real for you.”
6. “Certainly he’s real — I’ve seen him myself.”

Which of these answers can our teacher give without betraying his calling? Can you think of a better one?

A wide range of vital topics are shunned or rendered harmless by educators wishing to avoid becoming the target of no-nothing parents, civic “activists,” opportunistic politicians, or self-appointed guardians of public morality. What inevitably suffers are truth and relevance. This is why public schooling is often devitalized, immaterial, and boring. This also is how teachers become irrelevant, neutered apologists.

Admittedly, one person’s truth is another’s foolishness. Nevertheless, education without candor is no education at all. Moreover, a teacher’s character, including his or her honesty, is what students remember after they’ve forgotten everything else.

1. “College Suspends Ellis for War Lies.” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 18, 2001, p. 4.
2. “California Children See How a Steer Is Slaughtered.” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 5, 2001, p. 6.

To examine these and similar issues further, see articles at www.newfoundations.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Teachers lie to keep their jobs, they follow outdated methods so as not to confuse us, we are a different generation we need the truth regardless or we will find it ourselves now we have the tools.
So don't tell me the magnetic north pole is in the northern hemisphere it isn't, don't tell me electricity flows out of the positve terminal on a battery it doesn't. Tell me like it is or we shall stop listening.