Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Teaching Evolution in Louisiana Schools

As reported in a new New York Times editorial, "Louisiana's Latest Assault on Darwin," Louisiana's State Legislature has passed a new bill (full text here) relating to how evolutionary theory is taught in public schools.

The idea of the bill is to encourage critical thinking about not only evolutionary theory, but also other politically-charged scientific topics, including global warming and human cloning. The bill explicitly opposes the inclusion of religious teachings in public education and allows teachers to supplement the approved textbooks with their own materials to promote objective analysis.

Like many scientsits and atheists, the author of the editorial is afraid that the new bill will create the false impression that evolutionary theory is not a well-established scientific fact, writing, "it would have the pernicious effect of implying that evolution is only weakly supported and that there are valid competing scientific theories when there are not."

I think this is a huge mistake. For one thing, it plays right into the hands of the opposition, giving them the higher ground by letting them accuse us of avoiding debate and critical thinking.

We have no choice but to embrace any legislation that promotes critical thinking in our public schools. In fact, we should view this new bill as a cause for celebration, not dismay.

It is likely that many students will be misled by under-educated or inept teachers who fail to accurately teach the facts and methods of science. However, there is no reason to assume that this is not happening already.

The fact is, public schools in America often fail to provide students with the tools required to recognize a good argument from a bad one; and, unfortunately, community leaders and parents don't always compensate.

This new bill might be a step in the right direction. By allowing an open debate on the hottest topics in science, students will be encouraged to evaluate the way we think about life and nature. This new bill may even open the door to a new wave of high school textbooks which teach science as it ought to be taught, with an emphasis on method, critical thinking and argument.

Science is a complex and dynamic process of discovery. Teachers should nurture the excitement science offers, and not kill it by reducing the subject to a series of pre-approved theories.

Let us give our children the benefit of the doubt and encourage them to explore the world from every angle. They may not all get it, but we have to give them the chance.