A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Intelligent design and intelligent debate

Well, today there is this headline in the newspaper that caught my eye: President endorses teaching intelligent design. Quoth Mr. Bush: "I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought."

Y'don't say! Can I hold you to that? Because I'm all about open, civil, intelligent discourse-- I just wasn't sure that many of the people Mr. Bush is courting with this pronouncement cherished the same goal.

The article goes on to say that the State Board of Education in Kansas-- always a bellwether in cutting edge educational thinking-- "is considering changes to encourage the teaching of intelligent design in Kansas schools, and Christian conservatives are pushing for similar changes in other school districts across the country." Luckily, not everyone in Kansas is so ready to acquiesce in this. In the words of Leonard Krishtalka, who directs the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, intelligent design is "creationism in a cheap tuxedo," trying to sneak into the Ball under false pretenses.

Faith and reason: complementary attitudes in the search for truth, or implacable adversaries? My faith is so important to me that the last thing I want is a teacher attempting the tightrope walk of explaining it in science class. Although my own personal belief is that God's existence is proven by the wonders of natural laws that tick along in complexity, this is just that-- a very personal religious belief which I would never share in class. Now, do I mention religion in my history classes? Yes. I have to, since religion informs behavior throughout history. How can a teacher explain current challenges facing American society without discussing certain religious beliefs and how they influence human behavior? But do I tell students that they personally have to ascribe to the beliefs that I have to explain? Absolutely not. And when I do have students who have legitimate questions about their beliefs, I gently but firmly suggest that this is a discussion they should have with their parents or guardians or religious leaders, if they've got them. Period.

But this is more of a case of "damned if you do, damned if you don't"-- literally. One of the things alleged "conservatives" constantly decry is schools invading the prerogatives of parents, as with the teaching of sex ed, because it violates their religious beliefs. "This should be taught in the home!" it is cried. (Agreed! I would love to not have to teach this topic, but from what I've experienced, a majority of parents don't. My own parents were so embarassed by the thought of talking about this with me that they sent me to a class. My father can be reduced to stuttering incoherence by the mere word "menstruation.") I find it interesting that the people who are most concerned about schools usurping the role of parents don't see the hypocrisy of having schools teach religious doctrine. Further, many of the people who promote the teaching of creationism in schools also spend a majority of their time denigrating in the most vicious terms the intelligence, industry, capability and intentions of teachers in general when it comes to teaching supposedly "basic" topics like reading and writing. And now they want people they consider to be evil, or even worse, numbskulls, teaching religious beliefs, with their millions of interpretations, as science?

My Beloved Offspring are occasionally taught things with which I do not agree. That doesn't mean that I will demand that the teacher conform the day's lesson to my beliefs. That means that as, a parent, I pay attention to what MBO are studying, and then we discuss our beliefs in our home. I also do not send said offspring to sally forth into class the next day and argue the point with the teacher. It is my responsibility as a parent to attend to my children's religious education as a part of our home life.

Another problem is this: many people who denounce the separation of religious teachings from schools only want THEIR religion taught, to the exclusion of viewpoints which conflict with their beliefs. Hmm, how should be handle this conundrum? Obviously, a show of hands won't work, because if democratic principles applied in religion, we would all still be placing offerings before altars to Jupiter-- Christians were once greatly outnumbered by those who adhered to the Roman state religion, and that was before Christianity was divided up into dozens of denominations with competing dogma. Judaism as a minority religion worked so well against the same Roman juggernaut that the Jews were expelled from Palestine for a millenia or two. If those examples are to remote for you, we can look at the modern example of the former Yugoslavia, or northern Ireland as cautionary tales of what happens when religions struggle for supremacy. Once we start injecting religious interpretation into schools, the next big problem, is: Whose interpretation? The Roman Catholic one? The Baptist one? The Jewish one? The Lutheran one (would that be Missouri Synod or Evangelical)? The Hindu one? Even people within denominations and religions do not agree with each other on matters of doctrine.

Let's just say that Mr. Bush gets his way on this one. Many people of faith aren't going to be satisfied with intelligent design, either, since some believe that Adam was created from clay and divine breath (or, if we interpret that etymologically, as "inspiration"), and that he and his male descendants are missing a rib under his armpit (Shall we teach that in anatomy?) Intelligent design fudges on this issue, to say the least. Religious people, beware! Intelligent design is still the injection of a small part of an overall religious interpretation with which only a minority of you would agree. It is also highly presumptuous that the only religious beliefs which should be promoted in our schools are Christian beliefs.

Another article about this story on the 'net contained the following quote: John G. West, an executive with the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank supporting intelligent design, issued a written statement welcoming Bush's remarks. "President Bush is to be commended for defending free speech on evolution, and supporting the right of students to hear about different scientific views about evolution," he said. But does any one else see the irony of this championing of free speech in this context?

The concept of intelligent design is a Trojan horse for adding religious content with which you probably disagree to schools' already overburdened curricular load. Speaking of Trojan horses, I know of several teachers who have been challenged for teaching Greek mythology, since the stories once served a religious purpose-- suddenly, then the cry from the religious right is that we are teaching religion in the schools! Apparently some schools of thought ought not to be subjects for exposition, freedom of speech be damned. Perhaps we should make sure not to teach FALSE religions.

Okay. Which ones were those, again?

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