- May 18, 2011
Gloria had to write an essay for class on the subject of how to teach evolution in the public schools. We talked about this for quite some time.
I won't bore you with the standard discussions about scientific literacy, fundamental misunderstanding of what the word "theory" means in a scientific context, &tc. I reached my own opinion on the answer to this question.
My answer is, at the same time, a panacea and a profound challenge.
There is no point arguing with parents about what should or should not be taught in school. Yes, they are the customer 'en loco' for the product that the schools produce. But the vocal minority of parents who make the subject of Darwinian evolution controversial are ill equipped to have the argument. They are for the most part not scientifically literate and can therefore not be expected to have a rational (and therefore useful) discussion of the merits of teaching the subject. We may only hope to have this discussion with the students themselves.
Living in any society is a contract. We submit to taxes. We submit to work in institutions which are not democratic. We abide by the laws, even when not reasonable or just. We agree to be productive to the best of our ability. Public education is a fundamental part of this contract. If you don't like it, then do not accept the rewards offered -- move yourself to a cabin high in the mountains and work on your own society. Good luck.
The best way to teach students about evolution is to begin a very strong education in science and the scientific method beginning in elementary school. Teach them to examine and discuss evidence. Teach them to question stated facts and suppositions. Teach them to draw their own conclusions about what they see, read, and hear, and teach them to argue the facts.
In elementary and early middle school this process may be conducted with entirely non-controversial materials and subjects. Nary a parent will object. (There are a handful of people around who have a problem with germ theory, but they are not terribly vocal.)
By the time these students get to high school they will be predisposed to examine the facts and sort out the dogma from the science. Many of them will even be equipped to ask parents to butt out and trust their ability to discern the truth of the matter. A student who questions theory and asks to consider an alternative argument (even so-called Intelligent Design) in the science classroom is not behaving in a manner contrary to scientific inquiry. They are actually doing justice to scientific inquiry.
This is hard work and will require lots of training and leadership. We avoid this opportunity at our own peril, and at peril to our republic.
And what about teachers who are not comfortable with teaching evolution in the classroom? I am sorry to report that I have a traditional (not neo) conservative attitude on this subject. Get them the training they need to get comfortable, or tell them to get another job. As this point in the history of science the theories of Darwin are one of the pillars of our understanding of our world. If a person cannot embrace those theories (even while entertaining arguments which are contrary to them) then they are in the wrong line of work.