Sunday, October 7, 2012

Oklahoma Evolution Workshop, Part Six

Early on Sunday morning, the clouds blew away. The Teachers' Evolution Workshop, sponsored by Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education, began with a presentation by Bob Melton, curriculum specialist for the Putnam City schools. Both Oklahoma and Texas have repeatedly received a grade of "F" from the Fordham Foundation for science education, because the Oklahoma state standards (and until recently those in Texas also) do not include the word "evolution." The Fordham Foundation has actually indicated that this is the reason for their low rating. However, Bob pointed out, all of the components of evolutionary science (such as natural selection and change in populations) are present. This is simply because state legislators and administrators hate evolution but do not know what it is, so that in the absence of the actual word these state officials do not realize that evolutionary concepts are being taught. Meanwhile, in what I consider a supreme irony, the very same government officials who refuse to include evolution in the state education standards have turned around and criticized science teachers for doing such a bad job and getting Oklahoma an F.

Bob reviewed the legal cases which, in every case, confirmed that evolution, and not creationism (including intelligent design), must be taught in biology courses. In some cases, some teachers have claimed that their First Amendment right by requiring them to teach evolution, but the courts have not agreed with these teachers. Moreover, schools may limit the extent to which students can disrupt classes, nor opt out of sections of classes, because of religious objections. This would be like saying, "For religious reasons, we do not want our children to learn about the Civil War in American history class." On the other hand, science instructors cannot ridicule religious beliefs in class. If teachers encounter resistance from administrators to teaching evolution, they can take some comfort in the fact that major scientific and educational societies (such as National Association of Biology Teachers and American Association for the Advancement of Science) have issued statements in support of teaching evolution.

It is doubtful, however, that any teachers in Oklahoma and Texas would have time to fight local officials for the right to teach evolution. One of our participants is a high school teacher who has to, on a Sunday, to grade 454 papers, after her three-hour return drive from this workshop. It is, perhaps, better to avoid conflict as much as possible. But one way to do this, modeled by Kansas high school teacher Ken Bingman, is to get the students to investigate evolution for themselves, rather than to just tell them the scientific truth.

Bob also got the participants to think of new ways to make teaching more fun, for example with songs such as "It's a Long Ways from Amphioxus."

The second presentation was by Dr. Joseph Maness, a biology professor at Southwestern Oklahoma State University. Jody gave the participants ideas about how to deal with the religion/evolution conflict. In Oklahoma, many students have been raised to believe that if they accept evolution, they will literally go to hell. What should we do? We can get some help from the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER). Their book The Evolution Dialogues explains that students do not need to choose between science and faith. For one thing, there is not just two positions (creation vs. evolution) but a whole continuum of viewpoints, as I mentioned in an earlier blog. There is a whole continuum of views. Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has published a diagram of this continuum, which was modified from one developed by a Christian geologist, Davis Young, who taught at Calvin College in Michigan.

While I admit that ther does not have to be a conflict between science and faith, I think we should be honest with students about what I call the "vast gulf" between science and religion, which I have begun and will continue to discuss in entries to this blog. Therefore, science and religion can be reconciled, but you have to decide to make them reconcile. For example, DoSER claims that science and religion both have "reason" as a shared value. Of course, this is not true of many religions, even in America. In most cases, the process of reconciliation has resulted from the advance of science and retreat of religion. Jody told us that in Biblical times, "faith" meant "trust" rather than "doctrine." I admit that the "trust" definition of faith makes the "vast gulf" between science and religion not quite as wide as I had indicated in my earlier blog entry. Nevertheless, most people today equate "faith" with "doctrine" handed down by religious leaders.

Several conference participants expressed the view that an overview of the potential compatibilities between science and religion would have been a good way to begin, not end, the workshop. These participants, religious beleivers, wondered if their faith was being attacked at the workshop, when to their surprise this was not the case.

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