Apr 16 2010

Evolution Denial – In Connecticut?

Mark Tangarone is a veteran teacher in the Talented and Gifted (TAG) program in Weston CT. He recently created some content for his class involving Darwin and Lincoln (both born on the same day), including Darwin’s early adventures where he started to piece together the evidence for evolution. The content was not approved by the administration on the grounds that “evolution was an inappropriate subject to be taught to intermediate school-aged students.”

I had to read through this article carefully to see what was gong on – anti-evolutionary sentiment in CT, my home state? I have lived here most of my life and, being an ardent critic of creationism and defender of science teaching in general and evolution in particular I have had an eye out for any hint of creationism in CT, and I have never seen it. The northeast is a hotbed of ghost hunters, but not creationists. Yes, they are around, but not in sufficient numbers to be a real nuisance.

It seems that the issue here is not teaching evolution per se, but at what age is it appropriate to teach evolution. I will acknowledge one basic premise of the administration – different ages and grade levels require different approaches to educational material. More controversial content should be reserved for the higher grade levels, while the lower grade levels should focus on widely accepted basic information. I would not try to tackle the history of the abortion debate in first grade social studies.

But I absolutely disagree with their application of this premise to the topic of evolution. Evolution is a widely accepted basic premise of biology, it should be taught right from the beginning of basic science classes – even in first grade. Young children can be taught the notion that all living things are related, and that living things have changed over the long history of life on earth. They already know that dinosaurs were around in the past, but not now – evolution is the explanation.

At least as it is being reported, the school administration is trying to portray the situation as a personal issue with a disgruntled teacher, but that seems like a diversion to me. Patricia Gay from the Weston Forum reports that Tangarone received e-mails (gotta love e-mails) explaining the rejection of his proposed content – they say it all:

“While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic as part of a TAG project, and further, parents who would object if evolution was part of a presentation by a student to students who do not participate in the TAG program.”

He further stated, “Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.”

In conclusion, Dr. Ribbens said, “In short, evolution is a topic that is not age appropriate, is not part of our existing curriculum, is not part of the state frameworks at this point in a student’s education, nor a topic in which you have particular expertise. For all of these reasons, the TAG topics need to be altered this year to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution.”

A “philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life?” What the hell does that mean? Is it scientifically satisfactory? What, exactly, are its philosophical shortcomings? I am really not sure what Dr. Ribbens is trying to say there, but it sounds like he has some confused notions about evolution.

Even if we put that aside, his core point seems to be that teaching evolution might conflict with the religious beliefs of some students or their parents. So what? You know what is taught in science class – science. Not religion. Public schools need to be free to teach science, all of science, unfettered by the beliefs of some parents. The public schools cannot dance around the beliefs of every parent. Parents can teach their kids whatever they want at home. They can homeschool, or send them to private school. What Ribbens is doing is allowing a minority of parents (and this is even hypothetical – he is anticipating problems that haven’t happened yet) to hamstring the teaching of science to everyone. Hiding behind the “age appropriate” argument is disingenuous.

I do think that public schools should be careful to stick to scientific content in science class – separation of church of state works both ways, and by teaching science as science all complaints about beliefs can be reasonably dismissed. This does not mean avoiding science content that conflicts with anyone’s religious belief. It means teaching students what the methods of science are and what those methods say about the natural world. You can keep whatever metaphysical beliefs you wish – but in the science class, the process and findings of science are taught unapologetically and not watered down. Likewise students should be tested and graded on what they know, not what they “believe.”

Ribbens’ fears and approach are misplaced, and in my opinion he was wrong to cancel Tangarone’s proposed lessons on the basis he did. It seems that the TAG students missed out on a great lesson. There is a generally accepted solution to the problem that Ribbens feared – that which I outlined above. That is the basic approach – public schools teach science and stay out of faith or student’s personal beliefs.  A public school principal should have a thorough understanding of this issue, and what Ribbens did seems like a rookie mistake.

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