How to Survive School With Your Beliefs

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Saraswati -Goddess of Knowledge - by Raja Ravi VarmaI received an interesting comment recently, on my post about cynicism in the environmental movement. Not just a comment but also a question about learning and facing situations where we are forced to learn against our beliefs. Like all good questions it was simply not possible to dismiss it with a short answer in the comment thread, so it gets its own post. The comment I got was this:

I’m joseph and 14 years old. And I NEVER belived once in global warming. But I hate it that my science teacher is theaching us global warming. I don’t realy want to particapate in it, but if I dont, I just might fail this class. And I don’t want that. what am i gonna do?

And what follows is my reply to Joseph, and the little bit of Joseph in all of us.

Dear Joseph,

The fact that someone your age is even considering these issues is a positive step in my book.

Always be clear about what you (don’t) believe

Firstly, when you say you don’t believe in global warming, what do you mean? Do you not believe that the Earth is going through temperature changes? That’s a little difficult to disprove. I think weather monitors everywhere have been recording consistently warmer summers for many years now.

Or, do you not believe that human beings are causing the warming? That can be argued either way with the right statistics, so we’ll leave that alone. The point is that you must know for sure what it is you are for or against, before you can be for or against it.

The value of real learning

Now let’s come to your actual problem, your science teacher teaching you about global warming which you don’t believe in. Learning is about getting new knowledge without bias. Don’t believe in Global Warming? Doesn’t matter. If you want to be educated, you need to know what it is and why it’s supposed to be true. If you want to get anywhere in life, my honest advice would be to at least learn to listen to every point of view you come across, and accept the fact that you will not agree with all of them. Also accept the fact that you can sometimes be wrong because you don’t know enough.

Don’t fear the knowledge

Think about this. Why would you not want to participate in a class about something you don’t believe in? What’s the harm? One of three things can happen:

1) You learn more and realise how right you were in your belief.
2) You learn nothing new but are exposed to other people’s thoughts on the subject which enriches your thinking.
3) You learn more and realise that maybe there is something to this thing you didn’t believe in after all.

Don’t you see, you win in every way. The only reason to be afraid of exposing yourself to new knowledge is if you are afraid that you will change your mind about something that you think right now. If it’s a matter of knowledge, then you very well might change your mind so there’s no point hiding from the facts. If it’s a matter of faith, then testing it shouldn’t shake it if it is strong. Instead it should make it stronger.

Knowledge vs Faith

I don’t think something like global warming is a matter of faith. It’s a mater of knowledge. Is it possible that global warming is not mainly caused by human activity at all? Absolutely, and anyone who refuses that blindly is just as bad as the zealots on the other side. But human activity is our best and most fitting hypothesis.

Science is not about absolute truths, it is about finding the best answers to our question about the world around us, from what we know today. These answers keep changing, but that is part of the game. The answers change because every day people go out there and try to know more.

Imagine if someone 50 years ago would have refused to learn more about electronics because they didn’t believe hundreds and thousands of components could be put on a single chip. They were probably right to believe it at the time, but if they had refused to learn more, the modern computer would have never been invented and we wouldn’t be having this discussion in this way.

Knowledge and responsibility

I’m sure you’ve watched the Spiderman movies. Even if you haven’t, a major theme in them is the fact that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Combine that with the age old idea that knowledge is power and we must conclude that with great knowledge comes great responsibility. When the knowledge is out there, ignoring it is not an option, that would just be running away from your power. Instead it is your responsibility to accept it, embrace it, study it, and give it its due attention. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with it all, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and knowledge certainly can’t kill you.

Engaging the Opposing View Point

How do you deal with a situation where you are being taught something you don’t believe in? Ask more questions. Ask deeper questions. If your teacher won’t answer them, ask someone else who will. Read a book.

Having done all this, if your belief is unshaken, don’t be ashamed of it, but at least acknowledge the fact that learning more has made your knowledge and your thinking on the subject deeper. When you’re asked in an exam to explain the mechanics of global warming, do so from what you have learnt. Whether or not you believe in it was not part of the question asked. School exams are rarely about what you believe, but rather about what someone else believed many years ago. Don’t take it to mean anything more than that.

Embrace knowledge but also learn to look at in a detached way. That will serve you well in the long run

The only sure thing

At the age of 14, I can only guarantee you one thing in life: In the future, you will change your mind about some things you believe today. It is inevitable. At my age (twice yours) most people’s beliefs are already frozen in rock, hard, unyielding, and often wrong. If there’s one thing you want to learn from school, let it be to never let your beliefs harden to that extent. Stay open to new ideas, learn new things, and you will enrich your beliefs and be a better and happier human being for it. By now you know that there is no better aim in life than that.

I hope this has answered some of your questions, and whatever other doubts this might bring up you are are welcome to share here. Above all, keep up this spirit of questioning. Not only is it healthy to question the beliefs of others on a regular basis, but better yet make it a habit to question your own.

Take care,

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  1. What a clever reply to such an innocent question. You’ve made yourself clear here but I do hope that 14 year old take the courage to follow your response and live with it with his senses on.

  2. Great response! The best thing you mentioned here, and which I can only wish that every living person is told much earlier in their lives, this: ” At the age of 14, I can only guarantee you one thing in life: In the future, you will change your mind about some things you believe today. It is inevitable… Stay open to new ideas, learn new things, and you will enrich your beliefs and be a better and happier human being for it. ”

    In addition to this, a call to the act of questioning, and never letting the skeptic in you die. Most people don’t realize the power of good questions, and art of learning to ask good questions. That, and keen observation. I think I just redefined Sherlock Holmes here. Oh well. You get the point.


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