Thursday, September 10, 2009

Students: credibility is not for sale

Having been in this creationism game for a long time and involved in Christian higher education for nearly a decade, I occasionally run across students or colleagues with a particularly bothersome attitude. It goes something like this: "I want to get involved in creationist ministry, and I need a degree so that people will listen to me and not just dismiss me as a crank." This attitude is not terribly common, but it is pretty demoralizing when I encounter such folks. Having just run into it again, I thought I'd post a few thoughts that might be useful to future students.

First, you can't buy credibility with a degree. If you are a creationist looking for credibility with noncreationists, it's a losing proposition. Just being a creationist ruins whatever credibility you might have had in the eyes of the world. The best you can hope for is a kind of grudging acknowledgment that you're not a complete idiot. You better learn to be content with that sooner rather than later, or you're in for a very frustrating career.

Second, you can't buy credibility with a degree. Frankly, for most talented students, degrees (even terminal degrees) aren't all that hard to get. I don't mean that you won't work for your degree, but for the most part, when you get accepted into a degree program, it is in your mentor's best interest to make sure you finish. Just having a degree, then, does not mean you have anything useful to say about evolution or creation. Getting a degree in computer science, engineering, or molecular biology won't be terribly relevant to the issues at hand. If you want to make a positive contribution, you should study something related to origins. Something like evolutionary biology. We have a great need in many fields and areas of study: biogeography, theoretical population genetics, speciation, evolution of disease, etc. And that's just biology. Don't settle for an engineering degree because you think that's all you can get away with.

Third, you can't buy credibility with a degree. At the heart of this attitude, I think there lies a certain arrogance. It's almost as if the education is unnecessary and only grudgingly pursued because it is expected. As if you could learn all you need to know about creation and evolution by reading books. The degree is just a piece of paper, and the details of the degree (where you got it, what it's in, etc.) are not as important as having it. If that's really the core of the attitude (and I'm not saying it always is), then it is a terrible attitude indeed. Ideally, a student should pursue education for the sake of learning new things and becoming a better person for the learning. What you learn is important, and if you think you already know everything you need to know, you've got a surprise coming.

I'm pretty sure that most folks who say this sort of thing do it carelessly without thinking. (I say careless and stupid things all the time, as regular readers will attest.) I would find it pretty shocking to encounter someone who actually believes that their education was just a "formality." Education is a demanding thing that takes lots of time and lots of money. If you're genuinely interested in understanding God's creation, education is well worth the effort. But it's best experienced by leaving youthful arrogance at the door and adopting a humble recognition of our own vast ignorance. Even Isaac Newton considered himself just a boy playing on the seashore.

Who knows? With a humble attitude, you might just earn a little credibility after all.