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Throwing the Book at 'Em

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While high-profile court cases and acrimonious school board debates grab the headlines, the individual classroom battle over teaching evolution is what resonates most. Take the case of Pat New, a 62-year-old middle school science teacher in Georgia. She’s won several outstanding-educator awards and is one of only two teachers in her school to hold national board certification, but during 2004-05, she was barraged with complaints about her Darwin-friendly lessons. After students and parents asked when she’d stop wasting time and end the unit, she politely pointed out that evolution is central to biology as well as featured prominently in the school’s textbooks. Then the principal got involved, pressing upon New his literal interpretation of the Bible. But it was a meeting hosted by the school superintendent, during which New was badgered by parents, that prompted her to consider filing a grievance against the school. She told administrators, not for the first time, that she was a) following the curriculum and b) adhering to Georgia’s science standards. After a call to the state department of ed, the superintendent concurred that, indeed, New was simply doing her job. She was left alone thereafter and did not file the grievance. So why is New sharing her story now? Because after 29 years of teaching, she just retired.

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Covering curriculum is a requirement in all subject areas, yet when it comes to instruction the Theory of Evolution vs. Creationism common sense goes out the window. Equal instructional time covering both concepts would elminiate much of the controversy. Why can't both of these ideas be given "equal time?" Isn't this supposed to be an environment of inquiry and fairness of ideas. If both sides were provided equal coverage, much of the controversy would be elmininated, then students could make up their own minds after investigating both of these ideas. Today's bulldozer mentality is harmful to teachers, parents, and students.

0. The tragedy here is that Mrs. New has retired a year early, thus depriving students at her school of an opportunity for a competent and honest learning experience next year.
1. Evolution is sound science with strong predictive capabilities. It is central to understanding biology. There is far more evidence for biological evolution than there is for the theory of magnetism.
2. ID is bad theology which states that organisms exist due to the exertions of a "nameless intelligent Designer who we do not know but who just so happens to have characteristics identical with the Christian triune God" (aka niDwwdnkbwjshthciwtCtG) By definition it involves a supernatural cause and is therefore not science. It has zero predictive value.
A dishonest presentation with winking reference to niDwwdnkbwjshthciwtCtG is also unacceptable since not only does it not teach science but also it implies that religion requires lies. Any honest analysis of ID in a science class would have the unfortunate appearance of beating up God since ID fails as science since science requires a different standard than faith.
3. According to the Bible (in two places - no less) pi equals exactly 3. Would you place your body in a train, plane, or automobile designed by a biblical literalist engineer??
4. To paraphrase the late John Paul II, the Bible is a book about how to go to heaven - not how the heavens are made!

How terribly sad that such a dedicated and capable educator should be leaving the classroom with such a bitter taste in her mouth. In the current climate of demagoguery and superstition, it is to the credit of the state education department that they too did not cave in to arch-conservative pressure.

I call to your attention an open letter that has been widely circulated and signed by many of the outstanding Christian theologians and ecclesiastics in our nation. It reads as follows and can be further investigated by following the link:

An Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science

Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture. While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible – the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark – convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation. Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist. We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as one theory among others is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

To view the list of thousands of religious leaders who have signed this letter already, please go to: http://www.uwosh.edu/colleges/cols/religion_science_collaboration.htm

If you would like to sign this letter, please send an e-mail to [email protected] listing:

Your Title and Name
Affiliation/Church (optional)
City and State

The idea that we should present both sides of this "debate" (it really is not that - it is more like a fight over the control of intellectual thought and ideas) in the classroom is a great one. We could set religious "theories" up for testing by collecting data for the various "hypotheses" that ministers put forward in their sermons (this would actually attempt to "prove or disprove" some of these ideas). Then we could present this data in charts and graphs and subject religious beliefs to the same challenges that scientific hypotheses and theories are subjected to each day. Now, that would make the parents and fundamentalists very happy, wouldn't it? While the idea of teaching these "side by side" sounds like an easy fix, it would actually make the problem worse, don't you think? After all, this is not about evaluating an essay or talking about historical "facts." This is about how the universe functions, and as our understanding grows, then our explanations grow and change along with our understandings......

Do we really want to subject our religions to this type of investigation?

The problem with teaching both views side by side is that it puts science and religion on equal ground as "revealed truth." Indeed, the textbooks and our own classes tend to present WHAT we know of evolution rather than HOW we know it. Science is not a matter of remembering facts provided by some Authority; it's a matter of figuring out how to explain observations. It is the observations--the data--that are facts. The explanations are merely that: explanations.

If we teach evolution by presenting students with data, then we have a very different kind of evolution/creation debate. The debate becomes "what explanation best fits the data?" rather than "who's right?" Even if we do as Kansas has done, and re-define science to allow supernatural explanations, we STILL have to explain the data--and the data don't require supernatural involvement. The only way to help students and their parents see this is to start with the data, and ask "how can we explain what we see?"

One of my friends has begun this approach in her classroom. She had a couple of parents ask if they could sit in on the class, and see if this evolution stuff really is true. Interesting.

Nice job, Jose.

As a final note, you hear about this "controversy" infrequently because (according to several different data sets) evolution is not taught in high school biology with any consistency. Different research studies have indicated that teachers fear controversy in class and the community and simply avoid the subject entirely. Now, that certainly skews the information received by the students, and is not allowing (at the very least) our young people to "make up their own minds" (this certainly favors the religious groups) in a subject area that will, at the very least, dominate our lives for the forseeable future. This is "the age of biology."

By the way, do you think I could get "equal coverage" in any of the local religious establishments....? Equal treatment and fairness to my ideas? And we have a "bulldozer attitude?"

By collegate standards, evolution is integrated into introductory biology in such a way that it appears in virtually every chapter. If we allowed "equal instructional time" for both "concepts" in that atmosphere, we would be teaching a religious/scientific course.

Since we have had a major upgrade/consolidation of the science curriculum in the Georgia Public Schools, evolution now is much more "central" like it is in the college/professional curriculum. Guess it'll take a while to spread to all the rural schools (not to mention Cobb County....).

Anyway, I am not trying to be rude or insensitive, but it gets very tiresome having people from a variety of subject areas, some with little or no scientific training, tell us how we should communicate/teach science, when their REAL purpose is not to promote ideas and critical thinking. They just want a foot in the door to promote THEIR ideas.

Like I said before, if we subjected their ideas to the same data analysis and critical reviews that scientific ideas receive, they would be even more unhappy......

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Recent Comments

  • Mark: As a final note, you hear about this "controversy" infrequently read more
  • Mark: Nice job, Jose. read more
  • Jose: The problem with teaching both views side by side is read more
  • Mark: The idea that we should present both sides of this read more
  • Roger Lakins: How terribly sad that such a dedicated and capable educator read more

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