Back to Basics #30
With the passage of new laws in Louisiana and Tennessee, the debate over teaching evolution is back, this time with the addition of teaching climate change.
I come at this debate from undergrad training and work in microbiology, plus some forty years of teaching, featuring a whole lot of teaching rhetoric and composition — including a writing course designed for students in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana — and some twenty-five years teaching science fiction.
From that point of view, the usual forms of the debate are weird.
The major challenge teachers face is apathy, and kids would have to be pretty militantly apathetic not to notice that there are some highly vicious — hence, interesting — fights raging around them over evolution, and a somewhat more polite struggle over global warming, but a struggle immediately relevant for them.
If the doomsayers are right about climate change, it will be the kids who inherit the doom.
Obviously, from a pedagogical point of view, the debates on evolution and climate change would be "teachable moments" straight from heaven, and the question I find most interesting is why "teach the controversy" is mostly a rhetorical ploy from creationists and climate-change deniers and not a serious strategy for thousands of American schools.
The answers to this question stem from very deep disagreements about, and I'd say misunderstandings of, what it means to teach and learn, plus disagreements about the nature and value of knowledge, education, and science.
Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner wrote about Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1971), and Postman on his own wrote about Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1987).
Both positions are correct: Teaching is centrally a conserving activity but also a highly subversive activity, and all the more necessary for being subversive.
Effective teaching passes on a society's conventional knowledge and assumptions, its basic ideas and beliefs; education preserves knowledge and tradition.
Good teaching also teaches young people — and great teaching teaches them at a young age and for life — how to think critically and question the received knowledge of their society.
Without conserving its received knowledge and wisdom, the society will perish quickly; without questioning and changing, a society will decay.
Effective teaching and learning — really educating people for life and citizenship — involves rote memorization, "picking up" facts and information; and it involves critical thinking, making connections, and drawing dangerous conclusions.
"Science" is indeed in part a body of facts, but only in small part. And the facts change.
The most educational moment I had in a science class in high school was when the competent biology teacher — not the teacher of my class! — walked into our classroom, told us to take out our textbooks, turn to the discussion of chromosomes, and change the number of human chromosomes from forty-eight to forty-six.
Someone had miscounted, and generations of school textbooks had come out repeating and passing on the error.
Facts change in the sciences, and that's no big deal. Most of the received knowledge of science is correct (or good enough), and, far more important, the facts of science are only part of what science is.
Science is a way of looking at the world, a way of asking questions of nature, a method of discovering knowledge and revising it.
Which gets us back to the nature of teaching — and what we want from teaching and how much we value it (including what we're willing to pay).
In the Gospel according to John, we're told Jesus was called "Rabbi (which means 'teacher')" (1.38); not disinterestedly, the old rabbis talked of "Our teacher, Moses," and an old synonym for "teacher" was "master." Indeed, unto this day the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church is called Magisterium.
Anyway, one idea of teaching is not just passing on received tradition but bloody-well laying down the law. Picture Moses descending Sinai.
The other view is a a teacher as storyteller or the leader of a very high-power bull session. Picture Rabbi Jesus telling a parable or Socrates questioning participants in a symposium, ancient-Greek style: a drinking party with philosophy.
Now that course I designed for honors biology students at the U of IL was "The Rhetoric of the Life Sciences," and what we did was look at old controversies. The goal of the course was to improve the students' writing skills, and the content of what we read and discussed was far from irrelevant but not where, as we would have said, the course was "at"; the controversies gave my students stuff to write about, "matter" for essays.
Evolution is a great topic, and I would have dropped, "Spontaneous Generation" in the figurative nanosecond — brains don't work that fast — if the climate change controversy had been around to replace it and I was sure I could sneak it in for its biological aspects.
I taught college, and the U of Illinois ca. 1968 was a major University with a lot of money and lots of space for educational experiments. The Evolution Controversy (and/or Climate Change) doesn't fit into the scheme of things with US K-12 public schools; it won't fit in with our schools' bureaucratic structure, politics, or financing.
Which is too bad.
Preparing for my course in The Rhetoric of the Life Sciences, I had read (skimmed actually) the "Recapitulation and Conclusion" to Charles Darwin's Origin of Species (1859). My students hadn't done even that, and when we got to the question of proofs for evolution what we recalled were vague memories of finches, Galapagos finches. I pointed out to my students that in a sense, serious Bible Christians were way ahead of us in terms of intellectual respectability: they would have studied carefully the two stories in Genesis of the origin of life (1.20-27, 2.1-23).
And among my students of science fiction (many of them serious fans) there was even less feel for what science might be.
Climate change was not yet on the agenda, but an honest study of the evolution controversy would have helped my students.
Studying the theory of evolution would usefully force a discussion of what the intellectual problem addressed by that theory might be — all those different species — what sort of hypotheses would help resolve the problem, and what evidence there is to choose an elegant hypothesis and develop it into theory.
From such discussions a class could proceed to how evolutionary theory might be proven and if this theory or any theory in science can be proven. If not, can it be "falsified"?
And so forth, getting into scientific method and a basic question of the philosophy of science.
The controversy over evolution can also lead one into some fascinating history: in England, of course, but also in the USA with the Scopes "Monkey Trial" in 1925, and the grisly tale of "Lysenkoism" in Stalinist Russia (1920s-1964): a story of state repression of Darwinist theory on ideological grounds.
The heart of the evolution controversy, though, is in theology, philosophy, and myth. An old hypothesis for why there are so many species is that God in His plentitude — overflowing love — filled with life every niche where life could fit. What are the advantages of this hypothesis and why might these be outweighed by a Darwinian approach?
Well, in a chapter "On the Virtue of Humility," Konrad Lorenz affirms "the fact of evolution" and notes that, for him, the idea of the evolution of the universe and all life is not only explains the data but "possesses, as well, everything that makes a myth of creation valuable: utter convincingness, entrancing beauty, and awe-inspiring greatness" (On Aggression [trans. Bantam, 1966: 217; ch. 12).
So an advantage to a secular, evolutionary approach is that it elegantly organizes the data of the material world and provides something most of us humans need: a creation myth. A disadvantage from the point of view of many religious people is that evolution provides a creation myth competing with theirs, a secular story in which God's plentitude is an unnecessary hypothesis — as might be God.
Add to this Søren Kierkegaard's observation and rhetorical question in Fear and Trembling (1843; ch. 1) that "[…] if at the foundation of all there lay only a wildly seething power which writhing with obscure passions produced everything that is great and everything that is insignificant, if a bottomless void never satiated lay hidden beneath all — what then would life be but despair?"
If the universe and life and human beings evolved by chance mutation and natural selection, if there is nothing special about Earth or the human species, then we might be in trouble.
In African Genesis (1961), Robert Ardrey recounts a theory that had a some brief popularity in the early 1940s: The Illusion of Central Position, a "birthright of every human baby" (144-45; ch. 6). It's a fact of human perception that the world revolves around me, and it's only a function of learning and maturity that we get a more realistic idea of our place in the scheme of things.
Still, if we ever achieved "a state of total maturity" and saw ourselves "in perfect mathematical relationship to the tide of tumultuous life which has risen upon the earth and in which we represent but a single swell; and furthermore come to see our earth as but one opportunity for life among uncounted millions in our galaxy alone, and our galaxy as but one statistical improbability […] in the silent mathematics of all things" — if someone ever achieved total, realistic, big-picture dis-Illusion of Central Position, then a guy might "simply lie down, wherever he happened to be, and with a long-drawn sigh return to the oblivion from which he came."
Getting rid of God is a problem, as the atheistic Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre allowed in 1946, and not just for our sense of worth; honest atheists find "it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven," i.e., absolutes and foundations that make it easier to say things like "Slavery is wrong" in the face of the obvious historical fact that just about all ancient societies practiced slavery — the Bible and Qur'an (though less so) assume it — plus a good many recent ones, including The United States of America.
The debate on climate change is over politics and economics and generational issues. But it's a dangerous debate for an untenured teacher without a strong union — or maybe even with tenure and a strong union.
The debate over evolution has much higher immediate emotional stakes.
We won't get "Teaching the Controversy" with evolution, or even climate change, because the issues are too big and too easily avoided.
The bureaucratic organization of high schools into departments precludes most serious study of a complex issue like evolution. Bureaucratic modes of thought cause us to compartmentalize knowledge and "enables" (as the Twelve-Step people say) the easy bad faith of arguing that science is science and religion is religion and competing creation myths and approaches to the universe just aren't proper topics for science classes. Since public schools rarely offer courses in philosophy or theology or comparative mythology, there's little to no space for such discussions in school.
And you really can't use multiple-choice to test learning a critical approach to complex issues — and none of this stuff is going to be on the high-stakes State exams.
And what happens when the first depressed kid is invited to think about the futility of human existence and then blows his brains out?
Or what happens if the kids conclude that evolution is a fact, variation through natural selection evolution's driving force, and that God is an unnecessary hypothesis to explain the origin of species or anything else?
Or if kids conclude upon honest discussion that Truth is less valuable than happiness so screw evolution — and modern geology, cosmology, and the scientific method?
Or if parents conclude that they sent their kids to school to get taught facts and bring home diplomas and not bunch of ideas and disrespect for authority?
And where in hell, or, more relevantly, outside the richest suburbs and prep schools, are we going to find teachers competent to "teach the controversy" on evolution or climate change or anything else? And how do we ask voters to raise taxes to pay premium salaries to get teachers who'll encourage their kids to dissect their parents' logic, talk back, and lose the faith?
For forty years I did my bit to conserve parts of the English-language tradition; and I tried to be a good public-servant, citizen-teacher-subversive and get my students thinking.
Coming from that experience, I beg my fellow Americans to argue in good faith what different groups want for their kids' educations, and what the kids might want. And then we need to make the compromises and accommodations necessary to handle radical disagreements, disagreements on root issues.