Evolution Education and Philosophy in High Schools

July 26, 2008 at 12:59 pm 2 comments

There’s a very well written op-ed article in today’s Washington Post that I was alerted to over at Science and Religion News. The title of the article is Evolving Towards a Compromise, and the gist of it is that some changes in science curriculum could help diffuse the support for the outright teaching of creationism. Rather than simply teach evolution, the article proposes teaching about what is and is not implied by evolutionary theory. To allay one of the specters brought up again and again by those who misunderstand evolutionary theory, for example, it is suggested that teachers explain that the description of the evolution of human behavior does not necessarily imply how humans should act.

I think that the article suggests a good direction that should be pursued by defenders of evolution education. Different polls show again and again that a majority of Americans are in favor of joint classroom time for both creationism and evolution. By discussing what evolution does not imply, perhaps educators can answer the public’s desire for a fair curriculum without having to go off the deep end and teach creationism.

There’s a major problem, though: class time. The authors of the op-ed apologize for asking educators to “shoulder another burden”, but between national and state standards it’s pretty hard to squeeze everything people want into the curriculum. Maybe better synchronization and communication between teachers could help with the compromise proposed– if, for instance, a social studies or history teacher could teach about the naturalistic fallacy while the biology department taught about evolution. The concepts would then be communicated at the same time, but the pressure on biology teachers to balance the demands of the public would be distributed amongst the faculty. The school district where I grew up tried to structure class groups along these lines (at least in middle school, where the district could largely determine which classes a student took) and it frequently had good results.

Something implied by the article, yet not explored, is the question of if and how to fit philosophical material into the public school curriculum. My high school was aberrant in that there was a single semester elective philosophy course open to juniors and seniors. I was too busy filling every elective slot with a music class at the time, and so unfortunately didn’t take it. A few friends did, however, and it was a class they truly enjoyed. So there is a high school audience for philosophy.

If there were a philosophy class included in the curriculum, there would be a natural setting where things like the naturalistic fallacy could be taught. There are a few problems with the inclusion of a philosophy class, however, that transcend the usual problems of funding and demand. First, there would be little point in making philosophy a required subject. In my experience, philosophy demands student curiosity and interest in order to be taught. The word means “love of knowledge” or “love of wisdom”, after all. Second, at least in my district biology was taught during freshman year. While I hope to have carried my high estimation of the intellectual abilities of high school students with me as I’ve gotten older, I don’t think that a philosophy class is for high school freshmen. It’s hard enough to take an introductory philosophy class as a college freshman. I’m not sure if biology is always taught, or has to be taught, during freshman year, however—does anyone out there know the reasoning behind placing biology the first in order of high school science classes? Is it the mathematical elements of chemistry and physics that requires that they be taught later than biology?

Having an elective philosophy course available alongside a biology class, even for a semester, makes a great deal of sense. It would create an appropriate space for the discussion of how philosophy and biology interact, and it would also provide an option for those parents who feel strongly that their child should be trained in critical thinking. It’s too bad that there are hardly available resources for such a class, and also that the class may be impossible to schedule. It’s a nauseatingly cheerful thought, but wouldn’t it be great if people realized the importance of a good philosophy class as a result of the long-running fight over evolution education?


Entry filed under: Education, Evolution, Philosophy.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bruce  |  July 27, 2008 at 12:18 am

    The “public’s desire for a FAIR curriculum?” I would be very careful about how you characterize the attempts by zealots to infuse a science curriculum with religious belief. While I have no problem with your proposal to “balance” science curriculum with a philosophy class, I think it is dangerous to call the inclusion of creationist beliefs in a science course as “fair.”

    While I doubt that you actually believe that such a curriculum would be fair, I point out that by using the phraseology of the creationists, you allow them to frame the debate: you seem to assume that a scientific curriculum that teaches only evolutionary principles is unfair or biased.

    In matters of philosophy of science, religion and religious beliefs may have a role in the debate; in matters of science instruction, i.e., a biology class, there is no place for religion (unless, of course, we are discussing the mechanics of the resurrection.)

  • 2. donescience  |  July 27, 2008 at 9:02 am

    I see how you would be concerned with the wording there, but I was thinking more of the language of gallup polls and sociology studies than I was of the language of the Discovery Institute. My next line clarifies the point of this post when I say that we can address the desire the American public has for a fair curriculum without teaching creationism. We can take the word back.

    Fairness is an important idea to project on one’s side of a debate. The creationists use the word “fair”, after all, to appeal to a desire that most Americans share– we like equal time, choice, and all sorts of good stuff that fall under the establishment clause. If they truly wanted the curriculum to be fair, though, they would stop sucking up the resources of various educators, bureaucrats, and lawyers with frivolous lawsuits and empty public gestures. I think that fairness in the curriculum looks a lot more like what the writers of the op-ed have proposed than anything that the DI would produce. And if evolution educators and their supporters could be framed as the fair ones, then an important victory against creationists would be won.


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Everything on this blog should be taken as a draft, the spilling over of mental activity flung far and wide. The author is a graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, MA who enjoys many things but devotes most of this space to matters academic.
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