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Friday, February 22, 2008

Bored of Education?

I have about fifty posts started, and some old ones to post-date, but I had to spit this one out.

An article appearing in the Florida Baptist Witness by a member of the Florida State Board of Education states the issue as clearly as it could be said:

"Even though I am one of the seven members of the SBOE, I was unaware of the inclusion of evolution in those standards until ... last fall with my dad ... and my mother. She was reading from a local newspaper and in her own special way pointed out an article stating that evolution would be taught in Florida's public schools."

She immediately contacted the Department of Education to get a copy of the standards with every instance of the E-word flagged so that she could judge for herself. I don't doubt that the documents in question are unwieldy. But if the standards are to actually have any influence over the how science is taught, then someone with a legitimate interest in science and science education should be able to navigate them to determine how any particular subject is to be taught! What an idiot! She hadn't even read them -- a member of the board that commissioned the standards! Her interest in "science" must be pretty shallow for her not to have even skimmed the document for areas that interested her. Obviously, her interest is in science only extends to taking advantage of its fruits and stopping the dissemination of findings that seem to contradict her beliefs -- even when they correspond to the same findings.

This reminds me of a snide remark I made at the beginning of an evolution debate that didn't actually happen. A friend introduced me to another guy at a party and then she said "you two should talk about evolution" before walking away. I might have been interested in a discussion of interesting science, but at the time, I didn't really feel like debating the definition of science, so I started the talk. "So, did you major in biology?" I asked. "No, she's just trying to get me started" he said. I pretended not to understand him and continued "Did you study a lot of math?... physics? chemistry? geology? computer science? What?" He looked away for a minute and then repeated "No. She's just trying to get me started." So I said in as non-confrontational tone as possible, as if wondering to myself aloud "why would you be interested in evolution? Huh." And that was it.

All this raises the question: should evolution really be taught in high-school biology? Maybe not, as suggested by microbiologist Carl Woese in a recent article in Wired. Comparing it to quantum mechanics, he says "what they pass on as evolution in high schools is nothing but repetitious tripe that teachers don't understand." While this may be true, this could be said of most of high-school science, and at its core, evolution is one of the interesting areas of science that most high school students actually can truly understand in a fundamental and useful way -- very much unlike quantum mechanics.

That said, in my opinion, the push of the creationists to "teach the controversy" might be reasonable if done right. Obviously, it would not be in a biology class, because evolution is not a controversy in biology, but it is a controversy between science and certain people with beliefs based on non-scientific criteria. A single-semester class on the meaning, purpose and philosophy of science would do just fine. Evolution is a perfect case for study in such a class. Unlike high-school-level biology, however, such a class would actually have something to offer a student whose religious beliefs forbid them from believing the fundamental principles underlying modern biology. Some less controversial scientific findings would be important starting points [such the round-earth theory or that the earth revolves around the sun]. Rather than just passing over them as mere facts or historical curiosities, an entire week could be spent on such facts to go through all the details of what makes a piece of knowledge "science." This would allow such students to understand what science is rather than just trying to cram something down their throats.

Tune in next time when I reply to a Texas school board member who complains about the teaching of the atomic theory of matter as though it were a "fundamental concept underlying all of chemistry" when, as we all know "the atomic theory of matter is just a theory."