What Did You Learn In School Today?


This has been edited since it was first posted.  My thanks to Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education for his comments.


I will start off by noting that if Tom Paxton were to write his song, “What Did You Learn In School Today?” (sung by Pete Seeger), today, he would have to add, if not change, some of the lyrics.

It isn’t so much that much of our educational curriculum is being rewritten (which some are trying to do) but that it is being done in such a way as to totally remove all that has been written or discovered in terms of an extremist agenda designed to limit the ability of individuals to independently think, analyze, and create.

It was reported on the http://www.houstonpress.com/ web site that the Texas State Board of Education might soon again be considering ways to water down the treatment of evolution and misrepresent it as scientifically controversial  – “The State Board of Education Is Looking At Science Curriculum, Again.”

Now, you will say to me that you don’t particularly care what transpires in Texas and you would prefer that Texas somehow float off into the Gulf of Mexico. But know this, the two large textbook markets in this country are Texas and California and publishers tend to listen to the decisions made in those states more closely than the thoughts of other state boards of education (see “Almost Spring” for additional links). While the process for textbook selection in Texas and California differ, the end result is that the textbooks that they select will be the textbooks used in the other 48 states.

DISCLAIMER

It should be noted that I am a Christian and that I truly believe that God created the heaven and the universe. I stand, as did the Psalmist, in awe and wonder of God’s handiwork. But, I am also a chemist, trained in the liberal arts to think, analyze, and then use my skills and abilities to understand the world around me and the heavens above me.

And what my observations tell me is that the process of creation is longer than six days. And as a Christian, I am not alone in this thought.

Origen, the 3rd century philosopher and theologian, opposed the idea that the opening verses of Genesis were a historical and literal account of how God created this world and universe. Later scholars, such as Thomas Aquinas, and religious figures, such as John Wesley, made similar arguments. Wesley would say that the Scriptures were not written to satisfy our curiosity but to lead us to God (adapted from “How was the Genesis account of creation interpreted before Darwin?”)

When John the Baptizer was in jail, awaiting execution, he sent his disciples to Jesus to ask Him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you see and hear.” (Matthew 11: 2 – 4)

I do not wish to be accused of proof-texting but did not Jesus say, in effect, determine the answer to your question by yourselves? Look around and tell me what you see?

My problem with the views of some individuals is that I am to accept, without question, their thoughts about the nature of the world and the universe. If I am created in God’s image and I am commanded by Jesus to report what I see and hear, must I not trust the evidence that is before me and not just accept someone’s word that this is the way it is and it cannot be any other way?

SECOND DISCLAIMER

I used to live in Texas but that was the Texas that elected Ann Richards as Governor, so it was a little more enlightened time. Don’t ask me to explain what has transpired in that state since that time or in other states where a desire for a literal reading of the Bible and what we are to learn from it threatens to move us back into a new and, conceivably, darker “Dark Age”.

THIRD DISCLAIMER

I do have problems with the teaching of evolution in the high school classroom but they are problems with the teaching of it, not with the concept, idea, or theory.

First, the theory of evolution as first expressed by Charles Darwin is not a fact. Theories are not facts; theories are the best explanation of what has been observed and the best predictor for what might occur. That evolution has and is occurring is a fact but that is a different statement.

The problem is that many teachers teach evolution as a fact, more because they do not understand the processes of science and because of time constraints that require a given amount of information needs to be presented to students in a given amount of time (in some circles, this is called the “fixed volume” problem). As a result, it is much easier to just stand in front of the classroom and say that evolution is a fact and go from there.

Such an approach totally voids the idea of science as an exploratory and experiential process. Science begins with observations. You must use your senses to see what is taking place in the world around you. What you observe, what you gather are the facts upon which you build your hypothesis, your thoughts about what is taking place.

A student I worked with a number of years ago observed that no grasses grew around certain weeds in her backyard. She made the hypothesis that the weed contained some sort of compound that killed the grasses. Of course, this rather simple hypothesis required very extensive laboratory work that involved the elucidation of the compounds that were present in the weed and a determination of which compound was the active compound. For her efforts (which took, I believe, all four years of high school), she received a full scholarship at a major university and the opportunity to work with a professor who had been working on the same problem.

THE SOLUTION

The solution here is not all that simple and some will not like it. But we need to go back to the time in society when we placed a premium on science and mathematics, when doing science was more important than learning about science. This will require a rather extensive outlay of funds because doing science means being in the laboratory as much or more than one is in the lecture room.

The roots of today’s science curriculum are found in the efforts of the late 1950s and early 1960s when this country responded to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first Sputnik (“Liberal Arts and Science Education In The 21st Century”). But, over the years, this effort has fallen by the wayside, primarily because of the associated costs for lab equipment and supplies. Learning has become textbook dependent simply because it is cheaper and more cost-effective to have a textbook rather than a fully equipped and functional laboratory.

And because those teaching science today have come up through this system, they are not likely to understand how science operates. So, in the end, science teachers who do not understand how science operates and have spent very little time doing laboratory work are tasked with teaching a very abstract concept such as a theory.

And before one complains that there is no money for education in today’s budget, we should compare what is spent on education with what is spent on military expenditures. And considering the technology that much of those military expenditures require, wouldn’t it help if the personnel working on those systems knew what they were doing?

Also, as the launching of Sputnik was considered a threat to national security and the essential reasoning for the expenditures in science and mathematics education then was that our national security would be compromised, what threats are there to our society today, military, economic, or otherwise, if we do not have an educated populace?

It will also require that citizens of the other 48 states begin telling their respective state boards of education to pay attention to what is taking place in Texas and tell publishers that they will no longer accept the decision of a few people in Texas as their decision.

Advertisements

3 thoughts on “What Did You Learn In School Today?

  1. Your concerns are shared by many. Sadly it is unlikely things will change. There is to much money involved. There is to much political power at stake.

    • Thanks for your reply. Please tell your friends and neighbors what is happening.

      Someone (I believe Theodore White, author of “Making of the President – 1960”) once wrote that the most politically oriented group in this country was the local school board and yet people refused to get involved. The situation in Texas comes from the fact that the majority of the population will not get involved and those who push this limited-thought agenda have enough supporters to get on the board and stay on the board. Hopefully, the times are changing and people will begin to rise up in true protest.

      • You will not get any disagreement from me. However, it must be said that one reason for the politicization of school boards, etc. reflects a loss of confidence in the educational process and those who have responsibility for directing it.

        Personally I do not consider the problem to be primarily at the classroom but administrative level. For better or worse, the school room has been made a place less of education than indoctrination.

        Once upon a time stress was on reading, writing, arithmetic because these were the needs of business and industry. It was a system that worked well. It was practical. Today a new practical must be determined that will serve a new requirement.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s