In 1911, the name of the town of “Palmerston” was changed to “Darwin” when its control was transferred to the Commonwealth of Australia.
One hundred years later, as reported in the N.Y. Times, the journal Science has released a survey of the way U. S. public high school biology teachers present their subject, one firmly based on the principles explained by Charles Darwin.
The survey’s result: barely a quarter of surveyed teachers “consistently follow the recommendations of the National Research Council to describe straight-forwardly the evidence for evolution and explain the ways in which it is a unifying theme in all of biology.”
What’s going on here? Is it 2011 — or 1911?
What’s going on, of course, is the persistent, anti-intellectual aberration that is American Bible fundamentalism. “Persistent,” because it won’t go away. “Anti-intellectual,” because it refuses, often proudly, to believe the overwhelming physical evidence. “Aberration,” because nowhere else do so many with an otherwise modern education cling to such fervent religious literalism.
As the New York Times reports, “Teaching creationism in public schools has consistently been ruled unconstitutional in federal courts, but according to a national survey of more than 900 public high school biology teachers, it continues to flourish in the nation’s classrooms.”
Researchers found that only 28 percent of biology teachers consistently follow the NRC recommendations, while 13 percent actively teach creationism. (One surprising result was the finding that there was little connection between geography and creationism. Creationism was taught in biology classes scattered around the country, and not concentrated in one area, like the conservative South.) The rest of the teachers are what the survey authors call “the cautious 60 percent,” the controversy-avoiders. The New York Times reports:
The survey, published in the Jan. 28 issue of Science, found that some avoid intellectual commitment by explaining that they teach evolution only because state examinations require it, and that students do not need to “believe” in it. Others treat evolution as if it applied only on a molecular level, avoiding any discussion of the evolution of species. And a large number claim that students are free to choose evolution or creationism based on their own beliefs.
Imagine the equivalent situation in other high school subjects. “Good morning, class. Today, we’re going to look at the Founding Fathers. I know that some of you don’t believe in Thomas Paine, for religious reasons, but he’s on the final exam, so we have to talk about him. Just learn what the textbook says for the test, and go on believing what you want to about whether or not he wrote The Rights of Man.”
Or, to take a science example, let’s make “belief” in gravity optional for physics students — after all, it’s gravity that supports the evil lie that the Earth is not the centre of God’s universe!
Of course, “belief” — as the Bible literalists mean it, anyway — has no place in the teaching of the empirical outcomes of scientific investigation (please note the carefully-chosen and limiting phrasing before objecting). Despite what the Kuhn-inspired poststructuralists claim, teaching students that you can reasonably choose whether or not to “believe” in facts like evolution and gravity is a great deception, a betrayal of the nature — and daily utility — of our hard-won knowledge of ourselves and the world.
Since more high school students take biology than any other science course, write the researchers, and for about a quarter of them it will be the only science course they take, the influence of their Biology teachers is considerable.
One analyst cited by the New York Times suggests that the “cautious 60 percent” of science teachers would do a better, more confident job of explaining — and, sad to say, defending — evolution if they were better educated themselves. They “would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.”
But another expert is doubtful that more education is the answer:
These courses aren’t reaching the creationists. They already know what evolution is. They were biology majors, or former biology students. They just reject what we told them….This is the biggest failure in science education. There’s no other field where teachers reject the foundations of their science like they do in biology.” (my emphasis)
So while it may be 2011 for most sciences, in too many high school Biology classes, it’s still 1911, and the Scopes trial is still fourteen years — or more — in the future.
For a closer look at the atypically dominant role of religion in American life, you might want to read the two-part article O pray, can you see?, which can be found on this blog, in the “AVAILABLE ARTICLES” sidebar.
The graphic image that accompanies this article was found on a site that sells what it calls “Christian T-shirts.” This and several other T-shirts for sale convey the idea that evolution is the equivalent of a dangerous drug, to which the unwary can become addicted, to their eternal ruin.
The irony that those who’ve already drunk the Bible literalism Kool-Aid are warning the faithful to stay away from addictive drugs is amusing — and depressing.