The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"It is disturbing to discover in oneself these curious revelations of the validity of the Darwinian theory.  If it is true that we have sprung from the ape, there are occasions when my own spring appears not to have been very far."... ...Cornelia Otis Skinner.

Commentary of the Day - September 14, 2003:  SOLomon's Wisdom.  Guest commentary by Pamela Matlack Klein.

Here in Appomattox, Virginia, like in so many southern and mid-western communities, the teaching of theories of evolution is a hotly contested issue.  However, until a few weeks ago I was under the mistaken assumption that the argument over the teaching of so-called Creation Science in the public schools was moot.  Moot because, in this community, those who care deeply about Creationism either home school or enroll their children in private Christian academies.

I had a rude awakening over breakfast recently when checking to see how prominently placed my weekly column was in our copy of the local paper.  There, right on the front page, was the headline, "School Committee studying creationism; theory could be taught in Appomattox."  My shock was profound and my outrage so vocal that all the cats immediately ran for cover under the bed.

As a Master Naturalist in the County 4H Environmental Education Program I am too well acquainted with the deep distrust with which the local populace views the topic of evolution.  Many of them are proud to be ignorant on this subject and count themselves lucky that such dangerous secular rubbish is not polluting their children's tender and malleable minds.  That these same children score hideously low on the SATs, in part because they lack a strong background in science, doesn't seem to faze them in the least.  The kid will do fine working at Wal-Mart and his immortal soul won't be endangered by the seductive siren call of godless Big Science.

When we work with visiting school groups at the nature center we have to pussyfoot around any mention of natural selection for fear of immediate reprisals from the parents, many of who did not graduate high school.  They are firmly convinced that God created them in his likeness after he made the animals and the whole thing only took six 24-hour days.  This is what their preachers tell them and they do not want their kids hearing anything to the contrary.

The State of Virginia introduced a Standard of Learning system a few years ago because, in general, students in this state were not scoring well on the SAT and other standardized tests.  Since the introduction of the SOLs some school districts (perhaps the most troubling being Louisa County, just a short drive from the state capitol, Richmond) have lost accreditation.

As a result of this sorry state of affairs, local boards of education got together with their teachers and re-wrote the curriculum, using some sample SOLs as their guide.  Anything not covered in the SOL tests was put on a low-priority, let's-teach-this-only-if-we-don't-have-too-many-snow-days basis.  This really made life for the teachers a lot easier and now students know if it is mentioned in class it will be on the test.

About the best thing I can say about the SOLs is that they do contain a few questions about evolution and natural selection, necessitating that all science teachers at least mention it in passing.  When angry parents send letters complaining that little Johnny and Mary think they are related to orangutans, they get the "Sorry, it's in the SOLs" form letter in return.

Alas, the flip side of the coin is that if it isn't on the test it doesn't get taught.

So, much as I dislike the concept of an education system that adheres so stringently to a need-to-know program I am at least grateful in this one instance.  Here in my home county of Appomattox, the Creation Committee will be allowed to rant and present reports but as long as the state SOLs contain questions about evolution the subject will be given cursory mention in science classrooms.  However, given the determination of some of the proponents of Creationism in these parts, it won't surprise me a bit if they all band together and storm the General Assembly in Richmond, demanding equal time for their beliefs.  It will surprise me even less if they succeed in their goal.

©2003 Pamela Matlack Klein
In addition to her work as a Master Naturalist in the 4H Environmental Education Program, Pamela Matlack Klein writes a weekly column for the Times-Virginian.

The IP comments:  The IP never ceases to be amazed by the number of folks who are made uncomfortable by the facts of modern biology even though they are more than willing to reap the benefits of these discoveries in their daily lives.  Now that the human genome has been mapped, and the genetic code contained in the DNA of humans has been found to be remarkably close to those of other mammals, there can be little doubt about the facts of evolution.  The IP recently finished reading DNA The Secret of Life by James D. Watson (with Andrew Berry) (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003, ISBN 0-375-41546-7).  The IP concludes that the biochemical evidence alone for evolution is overwhelming.

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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.