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Is it worth fighting about what’s taught in high school biology class?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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It is probably no surprise to my regular readers that I get a little exercised about the science wars that play out across the U.S. in various school boards and court actions. It’s probably unavoidable, given that I think about science for a living — when you’ve got a horse in the race, you end up spending a lot of time at the track.

From time to time, though, thoughtful people ask whether some of these battles are distractions from more important issues — and, specifically, whether the question of what a community decides to include in, or omit from, its high school biology curriculum ought to command so much of our energy and emotional investment.

About seven years ago, the focus was on Dover, Pennsylvania, whose school board required that the biology curriculum must include the idea of an intelligent designer (not necessarily God, but … well, not necessarily not-God) as the origin of life on Earth. Parents sued, and U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III ruled that the requirement was unconstitutional. If you missed it as it was happening, there’s a very good NOVA documentary on the court case.

As much as the outcome of this trial felt like a victory to supporters of science, some expressed concerns that the battle over the Dover biology curriculum was focusing on one kind of problem but missing many bigger problems in the process — for example, this dispatch from Dover, PA by Eyal Press, printed in The Nation in November 2005.

Press describes the Dover area as it unfolded for him in a drive-along with former Dover school board member Casey Brown:

We drove out past some cornfields, a sheep farm, a meadow and a couple of barns, along the back roads of York County, a region where between 1970 and 2000, 11 percent of the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and where in the more rural areas one in five children grows up in a low-income family (in the city of York the figure is one in three). Dover isn’t dirt poor, but neither is it wealthy. It’s the kind of place where people work hard and save what they can. Looking out at the soy, wheat and dairy farms while Brown explained that lots of older people in the area can’t afford to keep up with their mortgages and end up walking away from their homes, I was struck by the thought that this was a part of the country where, a century ago, the populist movement might have made inroads by organizing small farmers against the monopolies and trusts. These days, of course, a different sort of populism prevails, infused by religion and defining itself against “outside” forces like the ACLU.

Press also went to see what the students in Dover thought of the controversy:

What do the intended beneficiaries of the Dover school board’s actions make of the intelligent design debate? A few days before meeting Casey Brown, I drove out to Dover high school to find out. It was late in the afternoon and a couple of kids were milling about outside, waiting for rides. When I asked them what they thought of the controversy, they looked at me with blank stares that suggested I could not have posed a question of less relevance to their lives. “I think you should leave us alone,” one of them said. “Everyone just sleeps through that class anyway,” said another. I approached a third kid, who was standing alone. Nobody he knew ever talked about the issue, he told me; it was no big deal.

Press suggests that this is not just a matter of teen ennui. The schools in the area may not be up to the challenge of addressing the real needs of their students:

For the most part, though, kids in Dover seem perplexed that so much attention is being paid to what happens in a single class. It is a sentiment shared by Pat Jennings, an African-American woman who runs the Lighthouse Youth Center, an organization that offers after-school programs, recreational services and parenting and Bible study classes to kids throughout York County. The center, which is privately funded, is located in a brown-brick building in downtown York, next to a church. … A deeply religious woman who describes her faith as “very important” to her, Jennings nonetheless confessed that she hasn’t paid much attention to the evolution controversy, since she’s too busy thinking about other problems the children she serves face–drugs, gangs, lack of access to opportunity, racism. “When we are in this building there are no Latinos, blacks, Caucasian children–just children,” she explained after giving me a tour of the center. “But when I go out there”–she pointed to the street–”I’m reminded that I’m different.”

“There’s a lot of kids out there looking for something,” Jennings continued. “They have questions that need answering. They’re looking for someone to trust.” I asked her if she thought schools were providing that thing. She shook her head. “I don’t know if it’s the schools or the parents or whatever, but something is wrong. The kids I see lack discipline. They lack reading skills.” Listening to her, it was hard not to view the dust-up over intelligent design as a tragic illustration of how energy that could be poured into other problems is wasted on symbolic issues of comparatively minor significance.

Why those symbolic issues have assumed such importance in America has a lot to do with the fact that, in places like Dover, the only institutions around that seem willing to address the concerns of many people are fundamentalist churches.

I take it that Press is not primarily interested in taking scientists to task. Rather, his point seems to be that folks in Dover and places like it are much less concerned about “direction” of curriculum by fundamentalist churches because those churches are perceived as taking care of social needs that no one else — including the government — seems willing or able to address in these communities. It doesn’t seem altogether irrational to bend a little to the folks keeping things together, especially if the bending involves changing the curriculum that the high school students are going to sleep through anyway, does it?

This is a variant of the ongoing debate I have at my university about what is supposed to be going on here. As it occasionally plays out with students in my “Philosophy of Science” class, it goes roughly like this:

Me: A college education should help you understand different kinds of knowledge and reasoning. My class should help you understand what’s distinctive about scientific knowledge.

Jaded Student: Dude, I really just want to sit in the chair and do the minimum I need to do to get the three units of upper division science general education credit. Don’t bug me.

Me: You’re a college student! Learning this is good for you!

Jaded Student: I’m only in college so I can get a job that pays a decent wage. If I could do that any other way, I wouldn’t be here.

Me: How will you navigate the modern world without some understanding of science?

Jaded Student: Unless understanding science gets me a better salary it ain’t gonna happen. Learning for its own sake is for suckers.

And here’s where I want to say that, although Eyal Press is right that there are very bad things that are much larger than the details of the biology curriculum happening in communities like Dover, the fight over quality public education is central rather than merely symbolic.

Whether intelligent design is presented as legitimate and empirically supported scientific theory in the classroom is one piece of delivering quality education, but it’s not the only piece. Making sure schools have the funding they for current books, for lab supplies, for computers and internet connections is another piece. So is making sure teachers can incorporate active learning that is not completely driven by a standardized test. So is ensuring small enough classes that students can get the interaction with their teachers and their classmate that they need to learn effectively. So is finding ways to support student learning in more basic ways — say, by making sure kids get adequate nutrition so they can focus on what they’re learning rather than on gnawing hunger, and making their trips to and from school (not to mention their walks down the school corridors) safer. Each of these issues ought to be addressed. None of them strikes me as a place where it would be legitimate for us to give up rather than to fight for what kids deserve.

Education is not a dispensible luxury. Rather, it is an essential tool for people in making reasonable choices about their own lives. Education isn’t just about teaching specific skills for the workforce; it also lays a foundation with which to learn new skills to keep up with a changing economy (or, dare I say it, with one’s changing interests). Even more, education is supposed to open up a world quite apart from the world of work. The world may need ditch diggers (or repair technicians for the ditch-digging robots), but it would be a much better world if the ditch diggers (and repair technicians) not only earned a decent wage but also had enough left over to buy a few books and to think about things they wanted to think about. (Yes, I’m going on my “everyone deserves a life of the mind” rant. It happens.)

Making a better world may require choosing one’s battles. Some would suggest that the battle over science education is a high-investment, low-payoff battle. But my own sense is that the minute we decide a certain population of students don’t really need good science education, we’ve put up the white flag.

Do we help students who are in difficult socio-economic circumstances by reducing their future prospects to succeed in further science classes or pursue a career in science? Do we help these students when we throw them out into the world as voters and consumers without a clear understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced and of how it is different from other kinds of knowledge? Might it not reinforce the feeling that the larger society really doesn’t actually care much about you or your future if you find out that people with a voice didn’t even whimper as you were subjected to an “education” these people wouldn’t have allowed their own kids to suffer through?

One of the guiding ideals of science is that it is a project in which anyone can engage — provided they have the necessary training. Scientists try to work out accounts of what’s going on in the world that are tested against and built upon observation that human beings can make regardless of their home country, their socio-economic status, their race, their gender, their age. The scientific ideal of universality ought to make science a realm of work that is open to anyone willing to put in the work to become scientist. A career in science could be a real avenue for class mobility.

Unless, of course, we decide that public school students in less affluent communities (or more rural communities, or red states, or whatever) aren’t really entitled to the best science education we can give them. If keeping them fed and out of gangs and passing the standardized tests in reading and writing is the extent of our obligation to these students, maybe a sound science education is a luxury. But if this is the case, we probably ought to cut out the whole “American dream” story and admit to ourselves that this place is not a perfect meritocracy. Those who have the luxury of a quality education have an advantage over those who don’t, and by golly they should own up to that. Especially when budgets are being hammered out, or when elections are coming up.

Lately, of course, as public schools are trying to weather dramatic cuts in state and local budgets (and for those far from the action it keeps getting worse despite claims that the economy is showing signs of improvement), science instruction of any kind has come to be viewed as a frill, something that could be cut in favor of more focus on reading or math (the areas most important for the high-stakes standardized tests). Or perhaps science instruction will need to be cut because budgetary pressures require a shorter school day. Or maybe science instruction will end up being delivered in ever more overcrowded classrooms, with fewer materials for hands-on learning that might give students experience with something like scientific methods for inquiry. Sure, in a perfect world we might want to provide more opportunities for active learning and guided inquiry, but, we are told, we just can’t afford it.

But what does it cost us in the long run not to make this educational investment?

The kids in Dover, and Iowa, and Kansas, whose science classes have become the ground on which grown-ups play out their anxieties about science, are part of your future and mine. So are the kids in the public schools cutting back on science instruction for lack of funds. So are the kids in classrooms where teachers convey the message that one has to be really, really smart — smarter than they are, certainly — to understand anything about science. These kids are the electorate of tomorrow, the workforce of tomorrow, the people who will have to make sensible decisions in their everyday lives as consumers of scientific information.

Even if, as 15 year olds, they don’t fully appreciate the stand being taken on their behalf, I’m not willing to back down from taking it, just the same way I’m not willing to let jaded students out of my classes without some learning taking place. Valuing other members of our society means valuing their future options to set their own course and to find meaning in their own lives.

Making good science education is not sufficient here, but my gut says it may be necessary.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. IncredibleMouse 8:55 pm 05/11/2012

    “Jaded Student: Learning for its own sake is for suckers.” – Oy! That statement would completely disarm me, by placing me in a state of shock.

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  2. 2. Janet D. Stemwedel in reply to Janet D. Stemwedel 9:06 pm 05/11/2012

    To be fair, that’s a paraphrase.

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  3. 3. JamesDavis 9:02 am 05/12/2012

    One of the president’s wives once said, “It takes a village to raise (sic) a child.” It should also take a village to educate one, but that will not happen with our current educational system. It needs changed and it is up to the educators and the village to change it. If a child is in stress at school, then stress is all they are going to learn. There is a better way. Take the child from the stress of the school and the child will have more quality time to learn. And how do you do that? Not every subject should be taught in school…most all subjects are better taught in the environment where the child is located – home and village environment. There is inexpensive technology that will make this form of teaching very successful in learning critical subjects. Biology is one critical subject best taught in the environment. I learned best in biology when our teacher took us on field trips. I could see, touch and analyze what the teacher was talking about, so I learned the most on those field trips and I looked forward to the next one.

    The Greeks taught their children Philosophy by allowing the children go to the chambers and debate philosophers. The Mayan taught their children Astrology by taking them out at night and pointing toward the sky and using their technology to help the children understand what they were talking about. We can do the same and our children will get a better education and a better understand of what we are talking about and it will benefit them more as they grow older.

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  4. 4. sonoran 12:39 pm 05/12/2012

    There’s an interesting subtext here: That diminishing the Government’s role in aiding it’s citizens leaves opportunities for other “morality-based” organizations to step into that void, i.e. it enhances the power and influence of churches.

    One of the disturbing implications of relying on “faith-based” institutions to replace the government in providing social services.

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  5. 5. TTLG 5:22 pm 05/12/2012

    Good topic, worthy of much discussion. I actually agree with the student; they need to learn things that are relevant and in a way that actually helps them learn. Critical thinking, scientific method, emotional intelligence (and how to apply these things to everyday life) all seem to me to be more important than specific scientific results for most students. Once they get good at applying these things, the scientific results should not be so difficult to understand. What is really worries me is that pretty much all the revisions of education I see proposed seem to be based on political outlook rather than any real scientific understanding of what is needed. Most of them lately seem to me to be more harmful than helpful.

    I also agree with sonoran: the government seems to be less and less interested in doing things for the ordinary people and one of the biggest losers are the children whose parents cannot manage to take an active part in their education for one reason or another.

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  6. 6. John-Albert 10:12 pm 05/12/2012

    From north of the border (Canada) it seems to me that all of the USA’s problems come from lack of education, including the strength of “conservative” elements. History and Geography outside of the US for a start. We should talk though – our current PM is of the worst ilk. He will be got rid of ASAP, in meantime he is trying to do in the climate, make the foreign owners of tar sands rich, and make his way into right wing heaven in the single term that those guys will ever get.

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  7. 7. Bops 10:20 pm 05/12/2012

    People that don’t want to learn are destined to be dominated by those that do,

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  8. 8. thehangedman 10:25 am 05/14/2012

    Janet – Thank you for the thoughtful and passionate plea for good science education, most of which I agree with. Clearly we should care about what is taught in high school science classes and be willing to fight for it. But it still seems to me that the question about whether it is worthwhile in particular to fight over the teaching of evolution in the way that those fights have played out (should it be affirmed in the classroom, should it be labeled a “fact” or a “theory”, should it be presented alongside “alternative” accounts, etc.), or even if those fights might be detrimental.

    Here’s what I mean. The state of science education in public schools in general is pretty depressing. Even in good schools, science education is terrible in part because of the way it is taught. The focus is overwhelmingly propositional and theoretical, focused on empirical and theoretical contents more or less cut off from the processes of their production and discovery. Students learn the structure of the cell, the physiology of various plants and animals, the ATP cycle, etc., without understanding the complexity and ambiguity of the phenomena and the difficulty with which these ideas were arrived at. The method of instruction is largely theological – these things are taught as facts to be memorized, regurgitated, and believed in. For most people, instruction in science class does not seem different in kind from instruction in Sunday school. What progress was made away from this model in the late 20th century (a course that was set but largely ignored almost a century earlier) has been lost in the last decade of test-driven education.

    In this context, it seems to me like the fight over the teaching evolution (the specific fights over curriculum that have actually taken place) reinforce rather than help to resolve the serious problems of science education. The scientific community essentially shows the public that what we should really care about is which dogma is memorized and affirmed.

    Alternatively, we could fight for reforming science education to be skills-driven, to give a strong understanding of the scientific process, to really understand what a theory is, how experiments work, how scientific reasoning works, how to evaluate it for themselves. We could even follow Dobzhansky’s suggestion and structure the entire curriculum around the unifying and explanatory role of evolutionary theory. If we focused on such things, then it would be irrelevant if we labeled evolution “just a theory” or if we gave a bit of class time over to discussion of the “alternative” of ID. The students would be well-prepared to see that such policies are a joke.

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  9. 9. Thin-ice 1:06 pm 05/16/2012

    The problem arises from the family these kids are born into. If the parents lack any curiosity or fascination with the world around them, and especially the natural world, then their children will grow into adults without any curiosity or questions. It’s an unending cycle, unless something breaks that cycle.

    I blame religion, especially conservative religion, for this culture of anti-learning. They claim that an ancient book has all the answers, and searching outside of it shows lack of faith and trust. It breeds a dis-trust of science, the findings of which sometimes fly in the face of religious faith.

    I was an evangelical for 46 years, and a missionary, and I never became curious about the natural world until I de-converted at the age of 60. Now my appetite for reading and learning about the natural sciences is insatiable. But it didn’t happen until I gave up a religious worldview. Maybe this is one of the answers, among others . . .

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