The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Faith is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see--
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency             ...Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems (1955).

Commentary of the Day - May 9, 2002:  Evolution and Education.  Guest Commentary by Beth Clarkson.

[ed. note:  The theory of evolution is arguably the most contentious issues in K-12 science teaching in the United States today.  Beth Clarkson's guest commentary provides another point of view on this subject.]

The teaching of the theory of evolution in public schools has been controversial for close on to a century now.  The debate shows no signs of subsiding.  A few years ago Kansas eliminated the requirement for evolution from their standards.  A huge furor arose, new State Board of Education members were voted in, and evolution found its way back into the standards.  These battles for control of the curriculum of public schools have raged for decades and show no signs of abating. One side gains power, but only temporarily.  The other side will continue to work, both within the system and without, to achieve their own goals.

Recently in Ohio, the fundamentalists are trying, (having given up on eliminating evolution from the curriculum - apparently they have learned from the Kansas example) to require inclusion of the 'intelligent design' theory regarding the origin of life on earth.  Does adding 'intelligent design' to the biology curriculum for everyone really improve our educational system?  It may help assuage the problems the anti-evolutionists experience, but it doesn't enhance education for the majority of students.  Competent biology teachers generally want no part of being required to teach such theories.

As a lifelong resident of Kansas, and having been raised in but having left a church that did not believe in evolution, I am well acquainted with the arguments on both sides of this debate.  Should the theory of evolution be required?  Should the theory of intelligent design be required?

The problem, as I see it, lies not which theories are taught, but in whether or not  those theories  must be taught to all students, even over the strenuous objections of some of their parents.

The facts, as I perceive them are as follows:

 1.  In order to have a competent understanding of biology, one must understand the theory of evolution.  I don't think this fact is in dispute by any rational person with a sound understanding of the biological sciences, including those who dispute evolution.

 2.  Since biology is a requirement for a high school diploma, the theory of evolution must be understood by anyone wishing to obtain a diploma.

 3.  The study of the theory of evolution can, for some children growing up in some faiths, result in a loss of faith.

No. 3 is really the crucial issue.  While this is sometimes disputed with the claim that religion and science are not really incompatible, in actuality it depends both on the religion and the individual.  Certainly, for some religions, there is no incompatibility.  Further, even when a conflict exists most people are able to successfully integrate it into their personal belief system without difficulty.  But not everyone is able to do this.

I can offer my personal experience with regard to this issue.  I was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home.  The church of my parents did not believe in evolution.  I don't think that public schools and evolution was the main cause of my loss of religious faith.  But I would place it in the top five.  The book Three scientists and their Gods by Robert Wright provides further examples of this basic incompatibility between certain religions and evolution.  Faith does not always survive.

Such a loss should not be taken lightly.  Arthur C. Clark said "A faith that cannot survive collision with the truth is not worth many regrets."  I agreed with this when I was younger; I did not mourn my loss of faith.  But over the years, I have come to realize more fully what such a  loss has cost me and my loved ones.

I now know the depth of pain that can come from a child leaving the family faith.  I have seen it in my mother's eyes.  I have heard it in her voice when she begged me to start taking my daughter to Sunday School so that she could hear the word of God and learn to love Jesus.   It pains me to know that I am the cause of such a deep wound in my mother's heart.  At least I am still on good terms with my family.  Some people end up rift from their families for decades, even lifetimes, over such a loss of faith.

It is therefore understandable that people whose religion is in conflict with the theory of evolution do not want it to be a required part of the public school curriculum, at least not without presenting competing theories that do not conflict with their religious beliefs.

It is also expecting a great deal of young children to expect them to assimilate two completely different explanations about the origins of life by two different sets of adult authorities in their life, one or both of which is claiming that the other group is either lying to them or are, at best, well-meaning but misguided ignoramuses.  It's one thing for an adult, or even an older adolescent,  to deal with such a conflict.  They presumably have the maturity to handle it.  If the strain becomes too much, they can either quit studying evolution or quit going to church.  A child has neither of those options.

So, what are we, as a society, to do?  Seemingly, we must weigh the need for an educated citizenry to be acquainted with the seminal scientific theory against the rights of those parents whose religion conflicts with the required curriculum.  Our society accomplishes this via our elected officials, but the results are clearly unsatisfactory for many people.  Hence the evolution battles continue, in one form after another.

As long as the winners in the public elections control the curriculum and must, perforce, inflict it on all public school children, there will be those in our society who are outraged by the result and will continue the fight.  In order to have a public school system that meets their needs,  they must first obtain the necessary political power and then redesign the curriculum for an entire state.  When that minority succeeds in gaining power, as they did in Kansas a few years ago, they revise the curriculum to meet their needs at the expense of everyone else's needs. Then, when the majority  realizes what has happened, new officials are elected to re-revise the curriculum yet again.

The seesaw nature of politics thus leaves our educational system swaying with the political wind.  Until we arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all, our society will continue to have such issues divide our population and sap our resources.  We need to provide for the needs of all our future citizens, not just a minority, nor even a majority.  But is it really necessary to require the same education for all?

It is not proper or just or wise that the education of the majority of children in our society should be compromised in order to satisfy the requirements of a minority religion.  Neither is it proper or just or wise to compel that minority to accept and support an educational system that compromises the religious faith of their children.

Thus, the solution does not lie with designing the best possible curriculum, but with changing the structure of our educational system to allow individuals the freedom and responsibility to make such decisions for themselves, even though others may disagree with their choices.  That is, after all, what it means to be free.

©2002 Beth Clarkson
Beth Clarkson teaches mathematics at Wichita State University, and is in the mathematics Ph.D. program there.

For a different view on this issue see the guest commentary by Beverly C. Lucey "Bad Science.  Bad, Bad Science." that we published on April 20, 2002.

The IP comments:  The IP disagrees with Ms. Clarkson's proposals insofar as they apply to the public schools.  American society is highly diverse culturally and highly pluralistic with respect to religion.  We are governed by representatives who are elected by majorities, but the power of those who govern us is tempered by a Constitution and judicial system that protects the essential rights of those who disagree with the majority.  The public school system reflects that balance.  We require everyone to support the public system through taxes, but we give everyone the right to educate their children outside the public system if they wish.  That seems to the IP to be protection enough for those who would not want their children exposed to the scientific facts of biology, geology, or astronomy.

Printer friendly version

[ home | web rings | links | archives | about| freelance contributions |donate ]

The Irascible Professor invites your comments .
©2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.