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

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

 
"The true division of humanity is between those who live in light and those who live in darkness.  Our aim must be to diminish the number of the latter and increase the number of the former.  That is why we demand education and knowledge."... ...Victor Hugo.

Commentary of the Day - November 9, 2004:  Are the Forces of Darkness on the March?

The IP is not quite ready to pack his bags and head to Canada in response to the results of the recent  presidential election that seems to have turned on the extraordinarily strong turnout of the "moral values" vote -- comprised not just of evangelical Christians, but also of conservative Catholics and orthodox Jews.  However, the IP is concerned that we may be heading towards an era in which policies driven by religious and political dogma trump those based on the pragmatic and reasoned evaluation of evidence, especially in the area of education.  While exit polls suggest that the "moral values" vote went strongly for Bush, in truth this was a close election (51% voted for Bush, while 48% voted for Kerry and 1% went to third party candidates), and the percentage of voters who made their decision primarily on "wedge" issues such as gay marriage, abortion and embryonic stem cell research was in the neighborhood of 25%.  Nevertheless, there have been suggestions from some on the far right that the President owes his reelection to them.  The clear implication is that the second Bush administration should give no quarter to more moderate views on controversial social issues.

There is evidence that the most conservative elements of the religious right have been emboldened by the election; and, that these elements want their religious world view to take precedence over sound science when controversial issues are discussed in public schools.  There also is evidence that some on the right, whether motivated by theology or by conservative economic philosophy, seek to weaken public higher education by starving its funding.

The textbook wars over the treatment of subjects such as evolution, cosmology, and sex education continue to be fought in places where religious conservatives dominate local school boards.  Currently, a school board in Georgia is fighting to place warning stickers in high school biology texts to inform students that "evolution is only a theory, not a fact", and another school board in Wisconsin is attempting to promote creationism as a credible alternative to the the teaching of evolution in biology classes.  Texas, along with California, dominates the market for school textbooks.  Those in charge of textbook purchases in Texas have managed to force the book publishers to remove most references to contraception from health education texts.  Abstinence is the dominant theme in the sex "education" of Texas teenagers, at least as far as the textbook writers are concerned.

On a different front, former Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey has been active across the country in the fight to defeat tax measures that would provide funding to higher education.  His group, "Citizens for a Sound Economy" has helped to defeat proposals to raise taxes to fund education in Alabama, Oregon, and Washington.  Recently, Armey has joined forces with Jack Kemp's Empower America to press the fight against spending on public higher education.  Their usual pitch is that these institutions are larded with overhead, and that by being more efficient they could meet the needs of growing student populations.

The fight over the teaching of evolution in biology (and geology) classes is at its most fundamental a clash of two world views.  On one side is the view that the creation story contained in Genesis should end all discussion of the origins of life, on the other side is the view that the origins of life are subject to scientific investigation.  Those who hold to the former view frequently argue that evolution is "just a theory" and not a fact, so other views should receive "equal time" in biology classes.  The problem is that evolution is both a theory and a fact.  The fact that evolution takes place is demonstrated amply by the short time it takes for bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics, and the frequent development of new strains of various viruses including those that cause AIDS and influenza.

The theory of evolution, on the other hand, is the set of rules that predict how evolution proceeds.  Like all scientific theories, its worth is determined by its predictive power; and, like all scientific theories it is tentative -- subject to revision, extension, or replacement if any of its predictions are shown through experiment to be materially false.  So far, much of the advance of modern biology rests squarely on the robust predictive power of evolutionary theory.

Creationism, unlike evolution, is at its heart a story.  Almost every religion, whether primitive or sophisticated has its creation stories.  In fact, there are two distinct and somewhat conflicting creation stories in Genesis.  While scientific theories can be judged by their predictive power, no such test can be applied to creation stories.  We have no objective way in which to choose one variant over another.  All one can do is to accept a particular story on faith.  This is not to suggest that such stories are without cultural merit.  However, they are not science, and should not be presented as such.

With the growth of scientific thought, there have been numerous conflicts between Biblical stories about the laws that govern our physical universe.  In all cases, the scientific view eventually has come to be accepted even by those whose religious faith is deep.  And, the scientific view of evolution likely will prevail in the end.  Remarkably, religion seems to be able to make those accommodations without a loss of basic faith.

The IP also is convinced that if the results of embryonic stem cell research prove to be a boon to medicine ways will be found to accommodate the ethical questions involved in this work.

More troubling to the IP are the efforts to stifle support for public higher education.  These efforts are led by individuals who do not believe in the notion of commonwealth.  They think that only private enterprise can work efficiently, and that all public enterprises are inherently inefficient and wasteful.  The truth of the matter is that by almost all measures, public colleges and universities are more efficient than their private counterparts.  They fuel the engines of social mobility, commerce, and discovery; and, states with strong systems of public higher education more than recoup their cost over the long run.  Unfortunately, it is much easier to convince taxpayers not to fund something that is for the common good than it is to convince them to fund it.  Not funding education to gain short term tax relief, however, is a bit like eating one's seed corn.

Are the forces of darkness on the march?  The answer, as always, is yes.  Are they gaining?  That question remains unanswered; but, there is a glimmer of hope in the recent passage by California voters of a major initiative to fund stem cell research.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.