This summer I taught a science fiction course at the community college. I called it “Science Fiction: Evolution, Ethics, and Technology.” The course was one that I designed and proposed to the college, and which has now been added to their permanent catalogue of offerings. I poured my heart into preparing it for months, then poured my heart again into teaching it.
The reason I wanted to design and teach this course is that I believe science fiction is a genre ripe for the exploration of the Big Questions human beings ask: What am I? What is life? Where did we come from, and where are we going as a species? It is not my job as a college professor to answer these questions for students, but I do think it is a step forward if I can get them to ask them in the first place.
We read Frankenstein and discussed the responsibility of Creator to Creature and the ethical limits of man playing God. We read Jekyll and Hyde and correlated it to addiction, then explored whether or not addiction should be considered a disease. We read Food of the Gods by H.G. Wells and discussed the concept of progress and personal growth. We read Bicentennial Man by Isaac Asimov and pondered whether mortality is really the most fundamental human trait.
The students were surprised by the things they learned in taking the course. I was surprised by what I learned in teaching it. It was a crash course for me in what I can only call “navigating diversity.”
The students were comprised of five young men holding wildly diverse worldviews. The ends of the spectrum were bookmarked by a 38-year-old man who had just retired from 20 years in the Marine Corps and a 27-year-old who is an artist, a musician, and a vegetarian. You can imagine the discussions that ensued.
Here are two interactions:
The question is posed: “Is human life intrinsically more valuable than animal life or other forms of life?”
The Artist: No. In fact, I forego eating meat because I do not believe another living thing should have to suffer to nourish me. There are plenty of alternative food sources these days.
The Marine: No. A fully trained bomb sniffing dog is worth at least three times the value of a fresh recruit.
The question is posed: “What is a human being made of – its tangible and intangible parts?”
The Artist: A body that encases positive energy, the ability to choose, the potential to love.
The Marine: Programmable evil. I say this because human beings can be programmed to view other human beings as nothing but targets to be shot at and killed.
In the moment, when these interactions happen, everyone is uncomfortable. Body language screams at me from every corner in the room. The Artist is deeply troubled. He does not want to believe there are people in this world who have the Marine’s point of view. The Marine is posturing, testing, trying to shock me and expecting a “liberal” response.
My maternal instincts want to simply smooth over this tension, move on, change the subject, skate on the surface of easier things. But isn’t this why I designed the course this way? Isn’t this just what I wanted?
I realize, in that moment, my responsibility is to build a bridge of empathy over the chasm between worldviews. I am more than a facilitator. I am a translator.
I pause for a moment and then speak quietly.
“I hope you all appreciate the value of the opportunity you have right now,” I say. “We are sitting here together, in a completely safe environment, with the chance to really listen to each other and stretch ourselves hard to wrap our minds around belief and value systems that are completely foreign to our own. Let’s face it,” I say. “This is a skill our society is completely lacking right now. So, let’s practice it. Let’s talk this through. Ask each other questions. Listen to each other’s answers. Really try to understand where the other is coming from.”
I turn to the Marine. “You said what you did, knowing it would ruffle the room, right?”
I turn to the others. “And the room is ruffled, right?”
Uncomfortable smiles and nods.
“So, let’s talk.”
I ask the Marine a few questions to draw out more details explaining his comments. Between the lines of his narrative, the others begin to see that this is a man who has been asked to set aside his humanity in many ways in order to fight wars for the rest of us, to give us the freedom to have this conversation. I see revulsion melt and awe and even sympathy creep into their expressions, as they realize this man has killed people and has had to find a way to live with that.
I ask the Artist some questions and allow him to flesh out his ideas. We learn he is not all unicorns and rainbows. The subtext of his sentences seems to imply someone who has wrestled with some serious demons and found his own way to cope. I see scorn leave the Marine’s face and respect emerge as he listens to the younger man who has served in his own way as a camp counselor, helping troubled kids.
As the weeks progressed, respect and even a sort of friendship grew among the students. They began to turn in their seats to face each other and pose questions to each other, with a genuine eagerness to hear alternative perspectives. The discussions got deeper and more personal as the course went on, and I believe we were all changed by the experience.
At the end of the course, I asked the students to write a brief reflection. Here are excerpts of the responses from my two “bookend” students:
“First off, I would like to say that when I signed up for this class, I thought it was not going to be that deep, and really only directed to a certain type of person. Boy was I wrong... This group was diverse -- both sociologically, physically, and demographically different ... However, what we were able to do, which the world is not able to do, is listen to each other.
“Throughout our classes I have learned how to take other people’s thoughts and beliefs
into account. I also learned what my own beliefs are on philosophical levels and what it truly
means to be a human and to value humanity on an even higher level…”
I came to better understand my role as a college professor in an increasingly diverse and polarized culture. I am a bridge builder. A translator. I’m there to ask good questions, listen well, and expect good answers. My goal is to transform each new class into a tiny community of conscientious, empathetic human beings. And it is to learn as much as I teach.