Freedom and Education

Let’s talk about freedom and education for a moment.

Today’s Austin American-Statesman includes an advance story about this week’s Texas State Board of Education public hearing and preliminary vote on proposed new science curriculum standards for public schools. Board member Ken Mercer, R-San Antonio, trots out the now-familiar talking points of the board’s creationists: teaching students “strengths and weaknesses” of evolution is about “academic freedom” and allowing students to ask questions.

What a crock.

This debate isn’t about protecting students’ freedom to ask questions. Asking questions is how they learn. No one suggests stifling that freedom. Rather, this debate is about whether the board will force publishers to include phony arguments (“weaknesses”) against evolution in new biology textbooks submitted for board approval in 2011. The board’s creationists have said they will use the “strengths and weaknesses” language currently in the standards to do just that. They tried to do so in 2003, but they lacked the votes to carry the day. Now they run the board.

Search around on “the Google” to learn about their phony “weaknesses” of evolution, such as claims about gaps in the fossil record, polystrate fossils and “Piltdown man” (one of Mr. Mercer’s favorites). If your research is complete, you’ll learn how scientists have knocked down all of those arguments. But that doesn’t matter to the board’s creationists. They keep recycling the same nonsense anti-evolution crackpots write in countless Internet screeds and propaganda pamphlets or that we might read in chain e-mail spam. You can listen to the audio archive of the state board’s November 19 public hearing for some samples.

Each of those phony arguments is a lie calculated to do one thing: call into question the validity of evolution. And that leads us to another lie — that the attacks on evolution have nothing to do with religion. In truth, creationists’ religious beliefs are the reasons for their phony attacks on evolution.

The board’s creationists believe in a literal interpretation of the Bible, which suggests that God created the earth and all life in six days just a few thousand years ago. That belief leaves no room for science and evolution of the wondrous diversity of life over billions of years. Yet the belief in a “young earth” is hardly shared by all people of faith, certainly not by Roman Catholics and many mainline Protestants.

So as we said at the top, let’s talk freedom and education for a moment. The debate before the State Board of Education isn’t about freedom for students to ask questions or for teachers to answer them truthfully. It’s about fundamentalists misusing public school science classes to promote their own religious beliefs over everybody else’s. It’s about handicapping our kids with a 19th-century education in their 21st-century science classrooms. It’s about whether we’ll be hearing more nonsense about “Piltdown man” all over again when biology textbooks are up for adoption in 2011.

One thought on “Freedom and Education

  1. Obviously this is not a fight about academic freedom, which is generally a concept directed at educational providers, not students, nor freedom of speech either. Rhetorically, the argument about teaching analytic skills is valid, ie “strengths & weaknesses”, and that’s why its being used politically, but it is not pedagogically valid. You might be able to question the 2nd law of thermodynamics with phenomenon described at the level of quantum mechanics, string theory, etc. But, that assumes you have operational knowledge of the empirically demonstrated concepts in both thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, etc, plus operational knowledge about what science is, how its done, and how it actually was done relative to the specific analysis in question. And, this is for the level of phenomenon that we call a PhD dissertation, not for most developing minds in public primary and secondary education. The biologists have already noted the difficulty of covering even an introduction to all the basic areas currently within biological science in public K-12 education. If we can teach something about the difference between co-occurring unrelated events and causally related events, plus some empirically demonstrated content in science and biology, then perhaps that’s enough for most public school students. The suggestion that certain modifications being proposed is actively suppressing inquisitiveness is heinous fraud and destructive of already failing socialization institutions. Perhaps, there should also be public school curriculum in symbolic logic?

    I have messaged in response to the latest American-Statesman article on their site regarding the history of the measured outcome performance of our public schools and the progressive failure that has had for science, policy, political will and society at large over the last four decades. I think we should consider carefully what the end result for American/Texas public education, and general public, of continued pitting of the Ayatolla’s of Human Secularism against the Hagee Ho’s of Creationsim will be. Should we continue to engage this battle indefinitely, without an educational exit from political rhetoric, that leads to success? Will that actually raise the public educational standards, expectations, and ultimately student K&S, in science, math, literacy, etc reversing the current declining trend of the last four decades? Given the scientific data coming in since summer 2007, how much time do we have to correct this failure of socialization, create political will, appropriate public policy and mass action on just one potentially disastrous issue: climate change!? Is the indefinite blocking of a negative going to create the necessary positive changes in our increasingly dysfunctional socialization institutions? We need to revitalize our public schools in major ways, or we’re lost. That obviously includes the complete make over of the SBOE itself, and who sits on it. We elected them!