The New York Times today reported a new battle in an old war has begun. In Texas, educators, scientists, and creationists are meeting again to wrangle over how evolution should be taught in schools. The article states that the primary focus of groups wanting to revise the curricular approach to evolution are the “weaknesses in Darwin’s theory.” These educators are concerned that teaching evolution as a theory without holes is irresponsible, and “akin to secular religion.” Biologists and evolutionary theorists, on the other hand, believe that exposing children to a theory that isn’t perfect will open them up to pro-creationism arguments. Their argument seems to say that if evolution isn’t taught as a scientific fact, the curriculum will “bring creationism in through the back door.”
As a teacher, I want to raise my hand and ask this question: “In the end, isn’t this not at all about creation versus evolution, but about how we teach our kids to think?”
I have so many reasons not to support a version of the world based on Biblical history. First, the Bible’s been rewritten too many times and across too many cultures for it to be any more accurate an historical record than, say, the many fine plays of Shakespeare (and who’s to say those weren’t divinely inspired… you try to write that much in 23 years). Second, most Biblical literalists would condemn me, a happy homosexual, to the nether regions of hell without a thought (this is, granted, a less than objective objection). Third, the Bible doesn’t make room for some of my favorite beasts, the dinosaurs. (I am aware that recent revisionist creationism theory includes the dinosaurs in the world after the Fall of Man. But that is a product of both the problem and the convenience of revisionism.) However, despite my reasons to hope the biologists win, I sort of have to side with the creationists here.
At least on the surface, what these folks are asking for is to offer our youngest children the opportunity to inspect different views. And, honestly, there’s simply nothing wrong with this, pedagogically speaking. To expose children to differing points of view, to offer them the evidence presented by opposing arguments, and then allow the children to decide what they think is true or true-ish, teaches them one of the most important skills they can learn in life: critical thinking. Throughout their adult lives, they will need to make decisions based on information they receive, and if we don’t teach them to accept that no information is ever perfect, no truth ever without objection to it, they will hardly be prepared to make those decisions.
Let’s take for instance the recent case of a young girl whose parents opted for prayer instead of medical assistance for her juvenile diabetes. The girl died, the parents are being tried by the state. Did they make their decision based on critical thinking? Or was their decision the product of a system of belief that does not allow itself opposition, that does not constantly question its ideas? Would the girl have died if the parents had been trained to think objectively about their circumstances? Maybe there are Christians out there who don’t want to think critically. I say shame on them.
Because there are Christians who want to think objectively (or at least their politics say so). They want to show that evolution isn’t perfect. And the biologists who resist – are they willing to promote critical thinking? It doesn’t appear so.
I’m not being naive. In fact, I’m being idealistic (wait, is that naivete?). To me, anyone who wants to further the cause of critical thinking and decision-making in young children, who wants to foster children’s natural ability to inspect, their preternatural curiosity, has my vote. Children should be allowed to take apart evolution and creationism the same way they need to be allowed to take apart the alarm clock or the toaster. And while we’re at it, let’s put racism, sexism, ageism and homophobia on the table and give them the tools to take those apart, too.
If the creationists want to teach God, then they’re going to need to do more than expose any holes in evolution. They’ll need to obliterate it, take it off the table, and never let kids near it. And maybe that’s their agenda. If the biologists want to teach Darwin, they’ll need to obliterate creation theory, too. And maybe that’s their agenda. To which I have to say to both groups, shame on you.
I say, bring theory back to the classroom. Bring experimentation back to the classroom. Let kids hear it all, inspect it all, and walk away believing what they will.
The problem in Texas isn’t that some want to teach religion and some want to teach science. The problem is not trusting children with both. Religion has been developed over the years by the curious and the faithful. The same with science. Shut down the conversation between the two, and you silence everyone.
Right, Gregor Mendel?