The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.
"....  ...Albert Einstein.

Commentary of the Day - April 20, 2002:  Bad Science.  Bad, Bad Science.  Guest Commentary by Beverly C. Lucey.

In Antediluvian Times, when I was in sixth grade, I learned something important about scientific inquiry.

Don't ask.

Teachers don't like certain kinds of questions.

Note that I use the Biblical reference for a very good reason that will become clear with patience.

Here's what happened.  Our primitive science book had a two page time line, in which humanoids, decorously covered in saber toothed tiger skins and looking like Richard M. Nixon on a really bad day, gradually stood more and more upright until they appeared as a man in a gray flannel suit with a briefcase.  This visual showed progress.

The time line was annotated with then current theory that indicated Iron Age, Bronze Age, Atomic Age, with approximate dates.  Somewhere in there was a note that Man began using language around 1500 years or so after he mastered good posture.

"Mr. Winn?  Mr. Winn?" a sixth grade pest who looked suspiciously like me, only with bangs and a page boy, wanted to reconcile a thought, and believed that a teacher could help.  Silly me.

"You know how it says here that man couldn't speak until 1500 years after being on the earth?"

"Yes," a suddenly alert Mr. Winn responded.

"Well, then how could Eve have talked Adam into eating the apple if she couldn't talk?"

We educators like to call that a 'teachable moment.'

Not Mr. Winn.  Mr. Winn told me not to ask silly questions.  Mr. Winn told me not to raise my hand again for three days as punishment.  Mr. Winn made me feel like crap.  Likely Mr. Winn was scared and confused and hadn't figured out some important things in his own intellectual journey.

My town was primarily Catholic.  We had prayer in schools.  We recited the Lords Prayer every morning, and did not include the Protestant ending to it.  In seventh grade I was required to memorize The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount.  We would be tested on it.  It was a public school.

That first memory of 'doing science' has stayed with me for quite awhile, and it bubbles up with great frequency as  I read how dismal our nation does, as a whole, with science education.  Although a bit of a blip and extra funding for science hit the schools after Sputnik and our Race to Space, we remain a country that resists scientific thinking in favor of magical thinking.  I think it's getting worse.

Certainly there is no single cause and effect reason for our scientific illiteracy.  After all, we've got sparkling technology, medical breakthroughs, and can create a shelf life for Twinkies and Velveeta that come pretty close to immortality.  We have great scientists in this country.

What we don't have are enough good science teachers.  But that's not even the base problem.

Consider the following reasons why we should be ashamed of ourselves when we talk about standards, high expectations, and improving curriculum...when it comes to science.

1. Standardized tests stress reading and math.  Teachers are under great pressure to raise those scores.  The focus on other subjects is diminished or ignored.  In fact, more elementary schools take time to include lessons in cursive writing, than they might spend on science in a week.  Other than a signature, I could make a case that we don't even need cursive writing anymore.

2. The majority of elementary school teachers, teachers who are expected to know quite a bit about EVERYTHING, have not had good science backgrounds.  Something has to give when the pressure is on.  If they aren't comfortable with science, they won't do science.

3. Schools who commit to text books, which are expensive, commit themselves to tomes that quickly become outdated.

4. Text book companies are at the mercy of large county school districts who are ever vigilant about certain subjects being too controversial for inclusion.  It's not just "How the Earth Began" that gets some people wiggy.  Even the study of the solar system is 'offensive' in some areas, because the implications of 'light years away' and the existence of other universes threatens the world view of religious literalists.

5. The people who are most nervous about science text book screening seem to be Christian fundamentalists.  They have power.  They are getting elected to school boards.  They are making teachers nervous, not to mention that many teachers are, themselves, fundamentalist Christians.

6. The push to teach Creationism, or its slightly spiffier cousin, Intelligent Design, undercuts the very heart of scientific exploration: finding proof, after trial and error, that something in our world can be understood.

*In March of this year, the Cobb County Georgia School Board (where Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr hang their hats) adopted new science textbooks.  At the same time, because of petitions demanding "accuracy in textbooks" signed by 2,000 county residents, the Board voted to include the following:  this textbook contains material on evolution.  Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things.  This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.

Just evolution?  Not all ideas and positions coming at us from all directions?  It would be my dream to have a population who approaches all material, new experiences, and other people 'with an open mind.'   That's what education is.  But that's not what the disclaimer means.

Alabama uses the same sticker.  Kansas decided a few years ago that evolution would not need to be taught, since it wouldn't appear on standardized testing.  Then they changed their minds again.

What I'm obviously working up to is that while some good scientists can also have some kind of religious faith, they must have the ability to separate the two.

Science is an intellectual pursuit; it's creative thinking; it's being able to let go of ideas that don't pan out.

Religion is a spiritual pursuit; it's magical thinking; it's being able to fit everything into a basic underlying assumption that is a given, without proof, accepted as a matter of faith.

Fundamentalism tends to be literal, not figurative.  Hence, it's anti-intellectual.  All fundamentalism.  All religions that have fundamentalist branches.  Logic takes a holiday.

Meanwhile, lots of people (grown, adult people, who supposedly went through school back when schools were allegedly doing a good job) get sucked in by pseudo-science, alternative science -- and they just love the paranormal.  They will stockpile Cipro, but won't stop smoking.  They don't 'believe' in evolution because they can't see it.  They will write notes to get their children excused from the seventh grade unit on the solar system.  And the one on dinosaurs.  And the one on genetics.   Electricity and magnets are OK, though.

The Pope forgave Galileo a few years ago, and religions do not hold to the sun revolving around us any more,  but primitive thinking remains in many areas of the country.  It's one reason we see single issue candidates and why single issue people vote for them.

Just as we can help to create a more moral society without teaching religion in public schools, so can we help to create a more logical citizenry...if we can get everyone to park their religion in the designated area.  Outside, and around the corner.

Mr. Winn?  I figured out the answer on my own.  Gravity is a theory too, but it keeps me pretty well grounded.

©2002 Beverly C. Lucey
Beverly Lucey is a career educator.  She taught in high school for decades and is now an instructor of education at Agnes Scott College.  She writes for and edits The Language

The Irascible Professor comments: There probably is no more contentious issue in K-12 education than the inclusion of "evolution" in biology courses.  This is followed closely by the inclusion of information in astronomy, physics, and earth science courses that challenges the notion held by some religious fundamentalists that the earth was created in 4004 BC or thereabouts.  As Ms. Lucey has noted scientific knowledge is advanced by the accumulation of evidence and the application of rational thought to form theories that are consistent with that evidence.  Almost all biologists agree that the evidence supporting evolution is extremely strong.  Nevertheless, they still strive to improve the "theory of evolution".  Likewise, the evidence for an earth that is older than some 6,000 years also is extremely strong.  Many people with strong religious faith, including several scientists that the IP knows, have no problem reconciling the facts of evolution and astronomy with their beliefs.  Unfortunately, as Lucey notes, those with very literal religious views are discomfited by the scientific facts, and want to impose their religious beliefs on all.  The IP will be publishing additional guest commentaries on this issue, and as always, we welcome your comments.

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