Saturday, September 27, 2008

culture wars and teaching science

There's a well organized, well funded, and determined movement out there trying its level best to hijack the way science, especially biology, is taught to our young people. It is itself not a scientific movement; it is not a movement that even contributes to research in biology. It is an activist group with a purely cultural/political agenda. All it really cares about is substituting theology for biology.

Anyone who thinks that this phenomenon is a mere tempest in a teapot, or some kind of sideshow, should perhaps consider the ascendancy of one Sarah Palin, herself a creationist, to the rarefied level of VP nominee.

But forget Palin. Here's what I find worrisome. The Discovery Institute, the so-called scientific organization fronting for the teaching of Intelligent Design Movement in American classrooms, has recently published its own science textbook which it hopes to see placed in schools across the country. It's called Explore Evolution. Click here to learn more about this textbook.

What I find most objectionable about the Intelligent Design Movement is its hostility to science which is of course not so cleverly cloaked in the rhetoric of "open mindedness". Science education should train children about how scientists think, how they acquire knowledge of the world, and how they add to and subtract from that body of knowledge over time. As such it should be the province of the people who do science, we call them scientists. Music ideally should be taught by musicians and so on... But Intelligent Design suggest a different criteria, namely that biology is best understood through the a priori assumptions of Christianity.

I recently met someone who after having taught for years in the public schools, took a position teaching science in a small private Jewish school in Portland. It's affiliation is Orthodox Jewish, Hassidic Jew to be precise. These folks are as conservative theologically as they come. Many of them believe that the earth is no older than 7,000 years old, based on a literal reading of the Old Testament. All students in this school are required to take two hours of religious instruction each day.

On the first day my acquaintance began his Biology course in this school he reflexively anticipated possible objections to the teaching of evolution and he offered alternative assignments to any student uncomfortable with the material. That very afternoon he was summoned to the principal's office. The headmaster had already heard of the teacher's offer of accomodation, and he was none too pleased about it. "We hired you to teach science. Our patrons want their children to be taught science the way science should be taught. Leave the religion to us and do your job." The teacher left the room somewhat chagrined but also elated. He put aside his inhibitions and focused on teaching science the best way he knew how to do it.

I love this story because it highlights how the reverence for knowedge, be it religious or scientific, depends on a kind of integrity. Where that integrity abides, learning can flourish in multifaceted and even paradoxical way that enriches and enlivens us. Where that integrity is absent, learning becomes little more than a soporific.

Demand better.
K

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