The other night before bed, my sons and I were watching the Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It was early in the film and two of the Pevensie children, Peter and Susan, were in Professor Kirke’s study because their sister, Lucy, had just caused a ruckus in the middle of the night (and upset the grumpy housekeeper).
Peter and Susan were trying to explain to the professor that their younger sister was acting like a lunatic because she believed she’d been to a magical forest via the upstairs wardrobe. The professor, looking quite interested, asked them what the magical forest was like!
Susan, surprised that the professor would believe such “nonsense,” explained to the learned educator that “logically, it’s not possible.” The professor, flabbergasted, sits back in his chair and asks himself, “what do they teach in school these days?”
I always enjoy this part because the professor is an erudite teacher who goes on to prove, using logic (author C.S. Lewis’s Trilemma), that we must assume, in fact, that Lucy is telling the truth! If only all academic settings were as powerful as this short two-minute clip.
After my initial smile faded, the overarching question remained in my head, bouncing around like a slow-motion pinball machine. Well, what do they teach in schools these days?
I’ve been an educator at the college and university level since 2011. During the last twelve years, I’ve noticed a dramatic shift in the knowledge, skills, and most importantly, the attitudes of my students. It’s this third one—their attitudes—that I’d like to address here.
Initially, I encountered typical students—generally affable but still grumbly, albeit good natured, about having to attend class. A few years later, through the late 2010s, I noticed they were starting to become angrier and very opinionated (yet overall, less knowledgeable about the world somehow). In the last few years, since 2020, it became apparent that they weren’t angry or opinionated any longer but, resigned. The hard part was, I couldn’t figure out why? According to almost every metric, there’s never been a better time to be alive (e.g., globally extreme poverty is way down, literacy is at an all-time high, child mortality rates have tanked, and people are living longer in freer and more prosperous countries1). If that is indeed the case, why the resigned attitudes?
In his blog post from October 12th, 2023, on hedonism and hopelessness, Perry Glanzer pointed out that many students today, from the earliest ages, are exposed to a barrage of dystopian thinking reinforced by faulty science that proposes humanity is a cancer on the earth which needs to be eradicated. These ideas permeate much of academia, are backed up by a raft of search engine results, and are chronicled well in Robert Zubrin’s book, Merchants of Despair.2 If you haven’t had occasion to read it, it’s a great book, albeit very depressing.
Now many of the facts being conveyed in classrooms aren’t necessarily “untrue” in and of themselves, but when they’re selectively presented to impressionable young minds in such vast quantities and with such ferocity, they can become like toxic poisons, similar to any substance (even medicines) when taken to excess. Toxic facts, in turn, create toxic narratives and thus toxic responses that are not only anti-human and anti-Christian, as Glanzer pointed out, but they are also reductive and untrue.
One of my favorite classes to teach is Introduction to Geography. In it, we attempt to explore the true state of the world, using data and ideas from scholars and thinkers all around the world and from across the political spectrum. It’s also a course that allows us to explore the wide breadth of the makeup of earth: from physical phenomena like landforms and climate, to the human condition like population and economics. It’s a broad, integrative course that makes me fall in love with the discipline every time I teach it.
Throughout the semester I press my students to question everything they see, read, or hear (even from me) and to always bring data and context to back up any claim(s) they make. The entire course is structured around examining the narratives about the world they believe to be true, particularly ones that I, as the teacher, think are wildly misunderstood.
Among the things we examine are:
1.Climate: Yes, the earth has warmed since 1900 (~1.3 degree Celsius). While that poses some challenges that we’ll have to address (e.g., the potential effects of rising sea levels on coastal communities), it’s not going to be the end of the world. In fact, deaths from natural disasters have dropped by 99% since 19003 (the timeframe of said warming) and by 2100 the U.N. predicts global GDP per capita will be ~434% of what it is today.4
2.Population: Despite a quadrupling of the population over the past century, the earth is not overpopulated. It’s not really a space problem–if we were to map every person on the planet, it would be roughly equal in size to Lincoln County, Nebraska (~0.005% of the land area of the earth). It’s also not a food production problem—according to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), globally there’s already enough calories to feed everyone (and the number of calories we produce is increasing every year). The actual issue is that the food we produce isn’t evenly produced everywhere5 (which is a completely different problem to solve). Yes, some places are overpopulated, but a simple geographic comparison reveals that the common denominators there are poverty, low levels of development, and poor governance. Furthermore, the earth is set for a dramatic population decline by mid-century.
3.Economics: Trade is one of the most invaluable things human beings ever created. The simple and free exchange of one good for another makes both parties more prosperous. When this phenomenon spreads, proliferates, and then compounds over time, wealth and prosperity (and thereby human material well-being), increase too. As Matt Ridley points out in his TED Talk, When Ideas Have Sex, without trade, we get a Stone Age hand tool, but with trade, we get a computer mouse.6 He also notes that because of this relatively new abundance, the average person in North America today lives better than any king in history.7
4.Natural Resources: We’re not running out, at least not anytime soon. In fact, because of the increasing levels of prosperity and material well-being, we’re able to innovate, find more resource reserves (or alternatives) as well as use the ones we have much more efficiently (e.g., every year we continue to get more prosperous using fewer inputs like water, wood, steel, paper, and aluminum).8 These advancements also enable us to produce more food on less land with less water, putting it all back into conservation (i.e., trees and wildlife habitat).9 Regarding energy resources: in the developed world (i.e., prosperous and innovative), our energy is produced now cleaner than ever, proved reserves continue to grow, and our CO2 emissions have been declining for quite some time.10
That’s the state of the world. Yes, there are still problems to solve (and there always will be), but look at what’s been accomplished! Yet, no one really knows about these achievements because it doesn’t fit the dystopian narrative.
Hans and Ola Rosling chronicle this widespread ignorance their book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.11 In one of their more well-known TED Talks, How Not to Be Ignorant About the World, they show how unawareness of the true state of the world is actually correlated to supposed higher levels of education! Simply bizarre.
Could things change in the future? Perhaps—but within the context of what we’ve achieved in the last 100 years, why would we expect anything different going forward? Or, as Thomas Babington Macaulay put it, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?”12
Back to feeling resigned.
At the end of the fall 2022 semester, a young woman turned in her final exam and, with tears in her eyes said, “thank you professor, I feel less guilty now.” Her comment struck me, and initially I thought maybe she failed the exam somehow. Which, of course, she didn’t.
A few days later, I asked her what she meant by her comment, and she sent me a very touching reply which I’ll paraphrase here as: “because I feel like I can have kids now.” Her tears weren’t tears of sadness, but tears of relief. Relief that she could one day live her life as she wished and raise a family of her own.
At arguably the greatest time to be alive and to enjoy the bountiful opportunities this world has to offer, we have college-aged students who’ve been inculcated into believing that they’re cancers, nothing more than carbon bombs, and the end of the world really is really coming.
How did this happen?
I contend that ever since Thomas Malthus published his treatise on population and food supply in 1798,13 that the “merchants of despair” have been pushing useful Malthusian narratives like this ever since—because doing so works! It grabs people’s attention. It makes them buy magazines and newspapers. It makes them stay glued to their social media feeds and preferred nightly news channels. It makes ratings. It makes money.
Thus, these dystopian narratives become ubiquitous and highly influential via constant reinforcement by all matter of media (newspapers, yes, but also TV shows and even children’s books).
The disheartening thing is, none of these proposed narratives, because of their provenance, are good, or right, or true—all things we should be concerned about as Christian educators. What’s more, they’re often anti-human and anti-Christian at their core.
Yes, the world has problems. But, as Steve Koonin points in his book, Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, “Solving a problem requires understanding it’s cause.”14 If not, we risk the unintended consequences of solving the wrong ones (often with very dire consequences). Accurately understanding any problems necessarily involves dismantling the old, reductive, and toxic narratives that have led to the hopeless resignation we encounter in the classrooms today.
That, then, is our mandate as Christian educators—and we can achieve it. All it takes is asking questions to break the narrative, just like Professor Kirke. We can start with a very simple one: “Is this true?”
With the state of education today, it’s incumbent upon us to ask that question and take the first step. Doing so can, and often does, have profound effects. I offer my students tears of relief as Exhibit A.
- Roser, Max. “The Short History of Global Living Conditions and Why it Matters that We Know It.” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Last modified in 2020. https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions.
- Zubrin, Robert. Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism. Encounter Books, 2013.
- Pooley, Gale. “The Collapse of Climate-Related Deaths.” Published online at HumanProgress.org. Last Modified on September 3, 2021. https://humanprogress.org/the-collapse-of-climate-related-deaths-2/.
- Lomborg, Bjorn. “Welfare in the 21st Century: Increasing Development, Reducing Inequality, the Impact of Climate Change, and the Cost of Climate Policies.” The Journal of Technological Forecasting and Social Change, volume 156. Accessed online at ScienceDirect.com. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S00401625 20304157.
- Food and Agriculture Organization. “Prospects for Nutrition.” Accessed online at FAO.org on November 8, 2023. https://www.fao.org/3/y4252E/y4252e04.htm.
- Author’s paraphrasing.
- Ridley, Matt. “When Ideas Have Sex.” Filmed at TEDGlobal 2010. Accessed on November 8, 2023. https://www. ted.com/talks/matt_ridley_when_ideas_have_sex.
- McAfee, Andrew. More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources― and What Happens Next. Scribner, 2019.
- Ritchie, Hannah, Max Roser and Pablo Rosado. “CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Accessed on November 8, 2023. https://ourworldindata.org/co2-emissions.
- Rosling, Hans, Anna Rosling Rönnlund and Ola Rosling. Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Flatiron Books, 2018.
- Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Critical, Historical and Miscellaneous Essays Volume 1. Books on Demand Ltd., reprinted 2013. Quote accessed online at Goodreads.com. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/ 58149296-critical-historical-and-miscellaneous-essays-volume-1
- Malthus, Thomas. “An Essay on the Principle of Population [1798, 1st ed.]”. Accessed online at LibertyFund.org. https://oll.libertyfund.org/title/malthus-an-essay-on-the-principle-of-population-1798-1st-ed.
- Koonin, Steve. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. BenBella Books, 2021.