Saturday, March 28, 2009

"How can you have any pudding if you don't eat yer meat?": On Teaching Evolution in Public Schools

“See the trees outside the window,” my high school English teacher once told us. “Aren’t they just so…beautiful? Trees are good for the environment. But I think they’re just pretty to look at. If people cut down trees then our city would look so …dreary.” She went on to tell us that our city had been named Tree City USA for a number of consecutive years. “I feel honored to live in Tree City USA,” she concluded.

I attended public high school in a liberal area. In English class we learned about the virtues of planting trees and recycling. In biology we learned about compost piles. In government we learned how Hoover’s lassiz-faire philosophy worsened the Great Depression, while FDR’s New Deal brought down unemployment through public works programs like the massive Hoover Dam.

It was a secular and tolerant area of the country, so we were never told that evolution was just a theory. But since then the debate over how to teach evolution in public schools has grown exponentially. As evolution becomes more ingrained in mainstream science, there's a stronger push to teach it at lower levels of education. Just recently the Texas education board narrowly decided that teachers of evolution didn’t have to present the theory’s weakness. The debate is cast as a strange hybrid of science versus religion meets separation of church and state. The real problem lies not with science or religion, but with the state. The debate is borne out of the awkward institution of public education.

Public education is argued to be a lofty institution. And as with most lofty endeavors, its proponents use all sorts of arguments to back it: It’s a human right. It leads to social mobility. It’s a foundation of democracy – how are the people supposed to vote on issues when they’re uninformed? The truth afterall will set you free. How can we have a country where people are ignorant of the truth?

These principles might sound good in theory, but they don’t translate into practice. Our government is good at supplying everyone with the same services, but it’s dreadful when it needs to tailor services to individuals with different needs. Nowhere is this more evident than in public education, where you have some parents arguing that they don’t want their children to learn about evolution, others arguing that their children need to know about evolution in order to compete among the world's intellectual elite, while inner-city schools continue to fall apart regardless.

Evolutionists and creationists each think that they can solve the debate by debunking the other side – that the debate is somehow about evolution versus creationism. Personally I strongly suspect that the evolution-side is "right" in every meaningful sense of the word, but that's not what's fueling the debate. It’s not about who’s right and wrong, because neither side should have to pay for the others’ education.

The argument is sometimes made that evolution shouldn't be seen as stepping on religion's toes. But it does. If it didn't, then religious parents wouldn't feel like their values are threatened by it. Creationist parents are then pressured to use scientific arguments against evolution. But since they're not scientists, those arguments always fall flat, and then scientists mock creationists as both wrong and stupid. But scientists fail to see that it's not about science, it's about values. It's one thing for a scientist - after years of higher education - to call someone else with only a bachelor's, or God forbid, just a high school degree, as ignorant of science. But it's another thing for the scientist to then take control over how their children are educated. The scientist might know more about science, but what does he know about raising a child?

The strain, once again, falls on the fact that most of our schools are public. If more areas transitioned to a voucher system, then the debate would cool down; and if all schools were private, it would be a moot point on the national scene. The flaw in the current system is that everyone’s education becomes everyone’s businesses.

The evolution debate continually brings me back to my liberal high school lessons. Of course, being biased is no crime. But the notion that public education is this pure untouchable right which produces well-informed democratic citizens doesn’t match up with reality. Rather, public education leads to national conflicts of interest about how to best mold the minds of our youth. The debate over evolution is just one of many manifestations of the problems inherent in a public school system.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)Tree City USA, 04/22/2005, by Tracy Lee; (2) Hoover Dam, 10/22/2007, by chalkie_colour_circles; (3)Bryan Adams High School Hallway, 06/10/2005, by Dean Terry; (4)E, Brobee and Dino, 10/10/2007, by Shawn Anderson;

Video: (1)Music video of the song "Another Brick in the Wall" by Pink Floyd from their 1979 album The Wall.
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