It is so nice teaching biology to adults when there are no (obvious) Creationists in the classroom. It does not always happen that way – I have had a couple of cases in the past – but this time it was really nice as I could freely cover all topics deeply within an evolutionary framework (not always seen in my public notes, though, as I try to gauge the class first and then decide how overtly to talk ebout everything in evolutionary terms). It is always a conundrum. If there is a potential resentment of my lectures, I have to thread carefully. I have to remember that I am not trying to turn them into biologists, but that I am trying to make them think for themselves and to understand evolution even if they do not want to ‘believe’ it for religious reasons. Thus, I first teach about cell, heredity and development, which gives them (and me) tools for coverage of evolution. Then I explain evolution using insects as an example before ending with a “humans, of course” as well. Then I cover Origin of Life, evolution of diversity and current diversity. But I do not leave evolution behind when I move on to ecology, behavior and physiology either. More easily this time, but sometimes a little more ‘sneakily’ if I know I have Creationists in class.
So, I know exactly how difficult it is to teach even younger students – they are more likely to act rebelliously (adults will go along in order to get the grade and move on) and they are still more under the influence of parents and do not have enough world experiences. I admire high school teachers who teach Biology in areas of the country in which Creationism is rampant and most of the kids are likely to be a priori biased against it.
A week after the nice column by Olivia Judson about the necessity of teaching evolution in school, NYTimes once again visits this question, with a very nice article about Mr.Campbell, a biology teacher in Florida, one of the people who was involved in the latest science curriculum battles in that state this year.
Like a game of whack-a-mole, Creationist get defeated in court in one state, just to resurface in another state and start the process all over again. As they keep losing in courts, they are forced to dilute their message, and adopt the language that may, on the surface, seem OK, unless you know exactly what THEY mean by that language and how that language is supposed to be a wedge that lets religious instruction into public school science classes.
David Rea sees that the NCSE responses to Well’s “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution” (also accessible at the NYT site next to the article) are far too nuanced and likely to go over the heads of most Americans, and suggests to use them to teach the meaning of words, and the meaning of evolutionary concepts – they cannot stand for themselves but can be useful as a starting point for a classroom discussion.
Peter Dawson Buckland responds to one of the frequent misrepresentations of evolution that shows up in the article (voiced by a Creationist teacher in the same school as Campbell) and gives a vote to pragmatism over philosophical accuracy. PZ Myers disagrees and insists on absolute accuracy. John Hawks points out that the Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution – with which I agree: like Pokemon (and perhaps Spore), it is an example of gradual metamorphosis, in this case exacerbated by the fact that change is not induced by the natural environment but by human marketers.
As of this writing, the article has 342 comments on the NYTimes site, mainly by people who liked it and who – some clumsily, others with more expertise – try to explain the difference between scientific and colloquial usages of “theory” and other answers to those age-old questions that Creationists have been asking for a century or more already (and bored everyone to death, including myself, as the answers are readily available online, in books, etc.).
One comment that I particularly liked was this one:
I second comment #3. Bless Mr. Campbell. He was my high school biology teacher, and this article only begins to illustrate all the ways in which he is an amazing teacher. He constantly challenges his students to think for themselves, to analyze, and to test hypotheses rather than simply accept things at face value. He was the first teacher who ever taught me how, not what, to think, and Mr. Campbell is the reason I am now a biologist, studying evolutionary biology. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, and all biology teachers like you, who, in teaching evolution well, nurture the natural curiosity in young minds.
– Natalie Wright, Gainesville, FL
But some of the best commentary is right there in the article – words of Campbell himself. See this:
“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”
Mr. Campbell knows how tricky this process is. You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. If a student, like Natalie Wright who I quoted above, goes on to study biology, then he or she will unlearn the inaccuracies in time. If most of the students do not, but those cutesy examples help them accept evolution, then it is OK if they keep some of those little inaccuracies for the rest of their lives. It is perfectly fine if they keep thinking that Mickey Mouse evolved as long as they think evolution is fine and dandy overall. Without Mickey, they may have become Creationist activists instead. Without belief in NOMA they would have never accepted anything, and well, so be it. Better NOMA-believers than Creationists, don’t you think?
But for me, the key quote of the article is this one:
“If you see something you don’t understand, you have to ask ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ ” Mr. Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.
Education is a subversive activity that is implicitly in place in order to counter the prevailing culture. And the prevailing culture in the case of Campbell’s school, and many other schools in the country, is a deeply conservative religious culture.
There are many ideals or “values” that conservatives and liberals share. Freedom, strength, honesty, generosity, courage, responsibility, etc. are equally valued by people of all ideologies. The conservatives and liberals may define or understand them a little differently, they may order them differently according to importance, and they may deduce some very different policy proposals out of them, but in general they all agree that these are good human values.
But there is one human trait where the two ideologies differ. That is Obedience. For conservatives, this is a positive human trait. For liberals, it is viewed quite negatively. Why?
Because the two ideologies view time and history differently.
Conservatives see history as a story of decline from some mythical Golden Age which, depends who you ask, may be the Garden of Eden, or middle ages when Church and State were one and the same, or late 19th century USA with robber barons in charge, or 1930s Italy and Germany when Business and State were one and the same (and kept all the “Others” down), or 1950s when women were sent to the kitchen. They feel like the future is bleak and that their duty is to slow down and stop the decline, or reverse it if they can.
Their belief that world is dangerous is a part of this mindset – they always think that the world is more to be feared now than it was in the mystical past. Corporate media help them in this – switch off the TV and tell me: how many violent crimes, tragic accidents, horrific natural disasters, and war terrors, have you personally witnessed today in real life? Yesterday, the day before, throughout your life? How come you are still alive? Oh, but the media wants to deliver you to the advertising so you will buy whatever will alleviate your fears today and make life worth living yet another day.
For us (liberals), the history is seen as an arrow of progress: every generation has a better life than the previous one, every generation puts some work and effort, and if needed fight, to make the world a better place for the next generation. We want to foster and continue this trend. For this to happen, each generation needs to break with the parents’ worldview to some extent. What is considered “normal” part of life for one’s elders, may not be so for the youngsters who take a serious look at it. Most importantly, each generation brings in another level of equality, bringing up a group that was institutionally pushed down during history, be it women, gays, blacks, etc.
Now, the word “equality” is understood differently by the two ideologies. It does not mean handicapping everyone to have the same no matter what their talents and hard work should earn them. It does not mean preventing people from attaining success. It means allowing people to go to the top regardless of who their parents were. If you made it, your kids should not get a leg-up because of that – they need to start from zero and try to make it as well. Or fail. But more importantly, it does not matter if your parents are rich or poor, white or black, US-born or foreign-born, religious or not, if you are male or female, straight or gay – you should have the exact same social and instititutional support in your strivings toward success.
Also, the measure of success in dollars is a pretty conservative notion – you can be dirt-poor yet be successful, consider yourself successful and be regarded by others as successful along other criteria, e.g., generosity, skill, talent. And the accidents of your birth should not be a factor.
In a worldview which sees everything as a zero-sum game, equality is anathema. If one goes up, this means someone else is going down. If women are gaining, this means men are losing. If Blacks are gaining equality, this means Whites are losing. If you see the world as hierarchical this is the inevitable outcome of your worldview.
Thus, the most essential thing that conservatives want to conserve is the social organization, including all of its power relationships, with the white, American, Christian, (officially) straight, rich, adult, male humans on top of everyone else. If that is your worldview, of course what normal people consider progress will look like doom to you. After all, we measure progress by how big strides we have made in eliminating the old power structures that used to subdue groups of people under others.
An important aspect of the conservative hierarchy is the authority of old over the young. The stereotype of an Old Wise Man Who Remembers The Golden Age of Yore. He who can bring that Golden Age back. The top of the hierarchy. Thus, obedience to His authority is essential for preservation of the hierarchical power structure. Thus, conservatives do not like education, they prefer “training”. They start early by training little kids, by methods bordering on abuse, to unquestioningly obey their elders.
The school should be a place to instill obedience (measure of success in rolling back progress) as well as to train for jobs that bring in the money (monetary measure of success). Thus, conservatives tend to fight against the liberal academia and hate to be told that Reality has a Liberal Bias. And most importantly, they fight against science education as it directly undermines the obedience.
See what Mr.Campbell is doing? Kids who were taught obedience know they are supposed to unquestioningly obey their elders, which includes their parents, priests and teachers. But Campbell puts them in a mental bind – they want to obey him but he is telling them things opposite from what their parents and priests are saying. Who to listen to? As a result of this exercise, they unlearn obedience. A red-flag danger for the conservatives. Their kids have been corrupted – they were, gasp, taught to think for themselves. And we all know what independent thinking brings about – progress! We can’t have that, can we?!
This is why Creationism is such an important plank in the conservative political strategy – it undermines the teaching of independent thinking. The asking of How and Why questions. All the stuff that each generation needs in order to analyze and reject their parent’s generation’s regressive worldview. Doom!