As if I’m not overworked enough, this year, I was put in charge of teaching a science class to a room full of young, full-on orthodox Jews. You know, the Jewish equivalent of fundamentalist Christians. They believe the Torah is the end-all be-all explanation for everything and I’m put in the position of teaching things that may or may not be in conflict. On any given subject, it’s a crapshoot as to whether or not I’m contradicting their religious learnings, but I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve just given up on trying to not offend them. I’m teaching science — that’s my job — and if the rabbis don’t like it, I don’t really care. That’s their problem not mine.

At my best, I’ve engaged the students in religious discussion. One goal of mine is just to get them to question what they learn since most of them have never truly been exposed to the outside world. In fact, they already know to question what they learn — they question me all the time, in a condescending manner — and I’m more than eager to address their questions. A student explained to me that Adam was created as a 30 year old man, not a baby. The Earth experienced something similar and that’s why it appears to be much older than it actually is.

I asked him if Adam was created with memories of what happened to him the day before creation. After all, he walked upright, so he must have learned how to do that, and he also could speak. These are things that need to be learned, so if he had some sort of knowledge, perhaps he had memories, too. Of course, my student didn’t have an answer, but at least I got him thinking. If Adam had a memory of something happening, and there was physical evidence of it happening, then who is to say that it didn’t happen?

Evolution is a big issue with them, which is especially interesting because none of them have the slightest clue what it’s about. They have the usual misconceptions, including the idea that we come from monkeys and the fact that it’s just a theory. I’m working on explaining what the word theory means, scientifically, to them, and I will have a unit on evolution some time before the end of the year. In the meantime, a student asked if there was an asteroid that killed all of the dinosaurs, why didn’t it kill the humans?

“Well,” I began, “there weren’t really any humans back then, in fact we were more like mice–”

Immediately, several students objected, screaming, “I thought we came from monkeys.” So, I guess that’s a step in the right direction.

Yesterday, I gave them their first test (in astronomy) and I’m a little disappointed. Though some students did better than others, there were no A’s. Part of the reason is that they don’t really know how to study and memorized minute details (some kids could name all of the gods that formed the days of the week — impressive, but useless) rather than learning the ideas, and part of the reason is that most of them didn’t care. Asked how the moon was created, at least two of the students answered, “G-d.” (They’re not allowed to write God without the hyphen) One even wrote, “God did it. Period.” At first, I was wondering what I should do. Although I disagree with most of their core beliefs, I don’t want to insult them. But after a few seconds thought, I just marked it incorrect. Again, if the rabbis have a problem, then let them complain.

I’m not 100% sure, specifically, what all of my goals are for this year, but a small amount of scientific literacy should be one of them as is a general appreciation of science along with a healthy dose of skepticism. I think to some of them, I actually am getting through and they are genuinely finding it interesting. The other day, we looked at pictures of planets and they all seemed to get a kick out of that. They also like asking big questions and it’s a shame nobody’s been able to answer them before. Many of these students have the makings of great scientists, it’s a shame their upbringing forces them into a life of tradition and hocus pocus.