Intelligently Designed Education

by on May 17th, 2005

The effort across the country to insert creationism into public school biology classes continues. Replacing the term “creationism” with “intelligent design” and avoiding direct identification of God as the intelligent designer do little to hide the motivation of conservative Christians to inoculate our children against Darwinian evolutionary theory. Biology teachers are up in arms, school board candidates fight about it, and all good-thinking liberals and humanists are appalled.

I’m not quite as appalled, despite my left-of-liberal atheist frame of reference. Don’t get me wrong. I think creationism is a crock. I don’t want Bible literalists determining public school policy — they do enough damage in the private sphere. And I figure evolutionary theory is more or less the way to go despite disputes among competing experts over how the pieces fit together. But what seems to me most important is something I haven’t seen mentioned: the whole creationist-spawned debate should make us reassess the artificiality of dividing the sum of important knowledge into curriculum-friendly, arbitrarily defined parts.

Some creationism opponents say schools should address religious objections to evolution in humanities or social studies classes, but not in biology, where the science must remain pure and natural, untouched by supernatural hokum. That fallback position seems reasonable only when we take separate spheres of knowledge as a given. Interdisciplinary approaches, though, dissect complex issues using multiple strands of evidence. They acknowledge that relatively few major topics, perhaps especially controversial topics, are confined to one single narrow realm. And purely on pedagogical grounds, not addressing in class material that’s clearly relevant and likely to be on students’ minds seems educationally unsound. Whatever happened to the “teachable moment”?

There’s another factor: Perhaps even more than is true for literature and history and Spanish, it’s dangerous to study science in isolation. Broader societal issues are always relevant. Sure, kids need to learn basic principles and techniques to appreciate the discipline and joy of discovery. They need to understand what it means to “think like a scientist.” But they also need to realize that thinking like a scientist blind to their work’s antecedents and consequences is wrong. Atomic bombs come to mind. So do germ warfare, internal combustion engines, IQ tests, and many other technologies advanced by scientists who didn’t always care what their expertise would spark. Science is not value free. Neither is science teaching.

Not only do I think high school students can survive a creationism discussion in biology class, I think many would come away from that discussion with an even greater understanding of what science really means and how scientists respond to nonscientific criticisms. That’s important. Vast numbers of people believe in creationism, in astrology, in other ways of framing the world that drive scientists crazy. Science class is the best place to take those issues head on.

One more point. It might not  be so bad if the fallback position — addressing the creationist attack on evolutionary theory in non-science classes — was really taken seriously and extended to other topics as well. Indeed, public schools that ignore religion’s central role in American life do their students a disservice. An honest education system would move well beyond superficial descriptions of what different religions profess and the importance of respecting differences to assess how religious thinking, religious institutions, and religiously motivated violence so often lead to repression, oppression, discrimination, and disaster. If such subject matter was the norm, we might have fewer creationists making believe they’re biologists.

Dennis Fox