The latest issue of the McGill Journal of Education is devoted to the Evolution/Creationism debate. There are several interesting articles but one that caught Greg Laden's eye was by Eugenie Scott on teaching the controversy [WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE “TEACH THE CONTROVERSY” SLOGAN?]. Greg agrees with her that we should not address the evoluton/creationism controversy in shools [How To Get Away With Teaching The Controversy].
I'm on the opposite side on this one. In Canadian schools I think we should teach the controversy—even in biology class. Here's my reasoning. You'd have to be some kind of idiot not to recognize that there's a conflict between evolution and many religious beliefs. Pretending that it's not there is no way to educate students.
If we really want to educate then we should address this issue head on and explain why the religious point of view contradicts science. One clear example is the age of the Earth. Students need to hear about the scientific evidence and why it isn't compatible with a 6000 year old Earth as described in the Bible. Another obvious example is the evidence for evolution and how it conflicts with most religious myths.
My children heard about this in their public high school and the biology teacher even organized debates between the two sides (creationists vs. evolutionists). He made an effort to keep everyone honest and avoid insults but there was no attempt to disguise the fact that a controversy existed.
Other Ontario schools did this too. On three occasions I was invited to other high schools to explain the evolution/creationism controversy. One one of these occasions I debated a Christian fundamentalist creationist in a Roman Catholic school. What's wrong with that?
There's nothing wrong with that. Teaching the controversy is a good idea. It's good when teachers explain what's wrong with astrology and it's good when they explain what's wrong with Young Earth Creationism.
The reason this won't work in the USA has nothing to do with whether we should address public controversies that involve science. I assume that students will be allowed to debate the pros and cons of global warming and they might even get lessons on what's wrong with holocaust deniers. The reason the evolution/creation controversy is banned is because religion is involved and that's a taboo subject in American schools.
How does Eugenie Scott deal with the position I advocate?
An argument that has been persuasive in both the United States and Canada is the claim that having students decide between ID and evolution, or to have students “critically analyze” evolution, is pedagogically sound critical thinking instruction from which students would benefit. Of course, all teachers want students to be critical thinkers! It might be a useful critical thinking exercise for students to debate actual scientific disputes about patterns and processes of evolution, as long as they have a solid grounding in the basic science required. (For further discussion, see Alters & Alters, 2001; Scott & Branch, 2003; Dawkins & Coyne, 2005.) It would, however, not be a good critical thinking exercise to teach students that scientists are debating whether evolution takes place: on the contrary, it would be gross mis-education to instruct students that the validity of one of the strongest scientific theories is being questioned. It would, therefore, be gross mis-education to teach students the inaccurate science presented in Icons of Evolution, and other Intelligent Design literature.I think she's making an incorrect assumption here. We can "teach the controversy" by dealing directly with the conflict between religion and science and by explaining that scientists do not question evolution. The whole idea behind teaching, as far as I'm concerned, is to teach the truth and not some made-up stories that the Intelligent Design Creationists are pushing. Scott is assuming that in order to teach the controversy we have to present the IDC side as if it were true. That's nonsense. It makes about as much sense as assuming that you have to pretend that astrology is true in order to demonstrate that it isn't. (Everyone agrees that there's a controversy over the validity of horoscopes, right? Should we teach about it in school?)
I just finished teaching a section on the evolution/creation controversy to second year students. We used Icons of Evolution as our textbook and the students each picked a single chapter and wrote an essay explaining why Wells is wrong. You could easily do the same thing in high school and that would be a real contribution to education. As it is, by ignoring those arguments you allow them to stand unchallenged.
Now, we all know that there's an additional problem that isn't being mentioned. It's the quality of teachers. I think many people want to avoid teaching the controversy in American schools because it would give teachers the opportunity to promote creationism. That's the point that Greg Laden mentions on his blog. If that's the problem then we should fix it. If teachers don't understand the material they're supposed to be teaching then educate them, or fire them. (I know, it's not that easy.)
We want our students to be critical thinkers and this issue is a perfect one for them to put that critical thinking into practice. If you dare not go there because; (a) you don't want religion in the school, or (b) you don't trust the teachers, then, please, state those reasons up front and don't pussy foot around the issue by pretending that there's something else involved.
Here's the essay that should have been written.
We can't educate our students about the conflicts between science and religion because that would require teachers to bring up religion in school. It is forbidden to discuss religion in public schools in America and that's why we can't allow teaching the controversy. This is too bad because otherwise it might be a good vehicle for teaching critical thinking. It's better to allow the local churches to undermine everything we teach in school because the alternative violates the constitution. (Of course, this argument might become moot with one more appointment to the supreme court.)
Furthermore, even if we could mention religion in school, it wouldn't be a good idea to debate evolution vs. creationism because there are too many "science" teachers who reject evolution in favor of Biblical creationism. We prefer the status quo where neither evolution nor creationism is being taught. Teaching the controversy under these circumstances just opens the door to teaching creationism instead of evolution.