February 24, 2011
February 24, 2011
February 24, 2011
Despite winning court battles at every turn, advocates for teaching evolution as the unshakable bedrock of high school biology courses have been losing on the ground to an astonishing degree.
In a recent essay in Science, Penn State political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael B. Berkman reported that their survey of U.S. public high school biology teachers show that only a relative small minority unambiguously teach the mainstream scientific view of evolution. Only 28 percent of the 926 instructors surveyed consistently implement the recommendations of the National Research Council, which calls on high school biology instructors to present without qualification the overwhelming evidence for evolution. About 13 percent of these public school instructors are active advocates for creationism or Intelligent Design as “valid scientific alternatives” to evolution — and, says Plutzer, “an additional five percent of teachers take the same position, though typically in brief responses to student questions.”
Plutzer, co-author (with Berkman) of Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge, 2010), discusses in a Big Questions Online interview more surprising facts uncovered by the survey, and their implications for science education in America.
Many assume that resistance to evolution is something largely confined to the rural South. Do the survey data indicate that the phenomenon is limited to one or more regions of the country?
Prior to our study, there were many surveys of teachers that also pointed to widespread teaching of creationism. But these earlier studies never included studies of the California, New York and the New England states. Our national probability sample of teachers confirmed what several scholars had suspected, that active proponents of creationism as science can be found in every state, even in fairly cosmopolitan school districts. Skepticism about evolution can be found all over the country, and many future teachers begin their education as evolution deniers. Those with strong feelings are unchanged by their college science education and bring these feelings to their classrooms.
What role does the local community play in the kind of biology taught in their public high schools?
The local community plays several important roles, and perhaps the most important is in the hiring and retention of teachers. We found that (on average, of course) teachers who do not accept human evolution tend to find jobs in the most socially conservative districts. Thus many teachers share values with their communities and find it easy to teach in accord with those values. Of course, “mismatches” are quite common, and teachers who find themselves at odds with local sensibilities may try to leave or fit in as best they can without stirring up controversy.
However, fitting in and avoiding controversy is not always possible. Many communities have large pro- and anti-evolution constituencies. We found that the teachers who experienced the most pressures to teach in a particular way were those in school districts with both a large number of doctrinally conservative Protestants and a large number of highly educated citizens. In these districts, there is no easy path for teachers to teach in accord with local opinion because local opinion is polarized.
Perhaps the most striking finding is that 60 percent of the nation’s public high school biology teachers are trying to take the middle ground on the evolution-vs.-creation issue. In your Science article, you and your co-writer speculate that this “cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists.” Explain.
Like their students, teachers want to avoid being called into the principal’s office, and teachers are very good at anticipating when a classroom topic is likely to stimulate a complaint from a parent or a school board member. Teachers know their communities well. On the other hand, teachers have strong professional norms and would like to teach with integrity and in accord with the recommendations of the major scientific organizations, even if it means ruffling some feathers. Teachers with considerable education in evolutionary biology tend to be confident that a visit from a parent or a complaint from a school board member will turn out well. One teacher reported to us that he was asked to write a “a letter explaining my view on why I teach Evolution through Natural Selection but not by ID. That was good enough for my principal.” But teachers with less extensive science education and with less confidence in their own expertise tend to play it safe.
They do this in a number of ways. Many sharply curtail the amount of class time devoted to evolution and focus solely on the “microevolution” of bacteria or small superficial changes in populations, such as in the coloration of moths. But they avoid the notion that current species have common ancestors. Others cover the material, but disassociate themselves from it by explaining that they are covering it because students need the information to pass high stakes examinations. Still others cover the material, but tell students that they can come to their own conclusions about the validity of the major findings reported in their textbooks. Each of these techniques undermines the legitimacy of science and the weight of empirical evidence.
Your study found that 13 percent of teachers explicitly advocate creationism or intelligent design. These are public school teachers, not teachers at private or religious institutions. How is this possible, given court rulings against this kind of thing?
The courts have consistently held that the teaching of “creation science” or Intelligent Design creationism represents an unacceptable violation of citizens’ rights to be free of government endorsement of specific religious tenets. The federal court system in the U.S. is not Big Brother. The Supreme Court is not in the business of identifying every instance of unconstitutional behavior. Rather, the burden on citizens is to “make a federal case of it” — literally. If no students or parents complain, teachers are free in their classrooms to make a wide range of choices concerning content and pedagogy…
February 24, 2011
Every statehouse and public employee union in the nation should be watching the standoff in Wisconsin. The situation there is not unique. It represents taxpayer frustration throughout the country and is a bellwether of disputes to come.
The problem is that states, cities, school districts and municipalities are broke. They need to cut back and cannot and should not raise taxes. Often, while elected officials in the role of chief executive struggle just to maintain services and have no hope of doing anything proactive, public employee unions can ignore the realities on the ground and use both labor laws and their political muscle to achieve wages and benefits that are inconsistent with the economic times.
The usual answer of management, layoffs, does not work in these times. With unemployment at around 9% and services already stretched, the threat does not resonate and in practical terms does not work anymore.
Gov. Scott Walker is correct to try and corral the issue once and for all. These times call for change. However, there is a compromise to get there that does not require the state to vitiate collective bargaining rights. Collective bargaining is American. It is bigger than Republicans or Democrats. It should be bigger than politics. It should not be the baby that goes out with the bathwater, not if there is another way. And there is.
In Wisconsin the unions, in a smart tactical move, offered to give into the governor’s demands on pension and health reform in exchange for maintenance of their collective bargaining rights. Although this sounds good on its face, it does not solve the problem of what happens next year or what happens in other local county school or village contracts.
In sum, the unions are looking for a one-shot solution, while the governor is seeking a structural fix. I believe there is a structural fix that advances the governor’s cause while maintaining collective bargaining rights for employees…
February 24, 2011
In her Histoire de Ma Vie, the author George Sand describes an encounter with Frédéric Chopin upon returning one night from a trip to Palma. Chopin was playing a melody on the piano, in the grip of a strange delirium. “He saw himself drowned in a lake,” she wrote:
...heavy and ice-cold drops of water fell at regular intervals upon his breast, and when I drew his attention to those drops of water which were actually falling at regular intervals upon the roof, he denied having heard them. He was even vexed at what I translated by imitative harmony…. His genius was full of mysterious harmonies of nature, translated by sublime equivalents into his musical thought, and not by a servile repetition of external sounds.
The work that Chopin was playing that night — according to “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin,” an article published recently in the journal Medical Humanities — is thought to be the Prelude in D flat major, or Prelude in F sharp minor, or even Prelude in B minor. But for the authors of the article — Manuel Vázquez Caruncho and Franciso Brañas Fernández — the exact piece Chopin was playing, or how it got composed, is less interesting than what might have been happening in Chopin’s mind while he was composing.
The diagnosis is distinctly medical. Chopin was having “hallucinations”. What many have read in Sand’s words to be an example of Chopin’s mysterious genius are in truth the result of a neurological condition. Caruncho and Fernández present a laundry list of possible diagnoses that could account for the Chopin’s hallucinations: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, fever, migraine. Eventually, the authors decide that the best explanation for Chopin’s hallucinations is temporal lobe epilepsy.
What does this say about the work of Chopin? The answer, the authors admit, is nothing. But they think the question is beside the point. What drives Caruncho and Fernández comes in their conclusion: “We doubt that another diagnosis added [to] the already numerous list will help us understand the artistic world of Frédéric Chopin, but we do believe that knowing he had this condition could help to separate romanticized legend from reality…” The particulars of Chopin’s compositions are somewhat outside the scope of the authors’ purview. Their conclusion, though, hints that Caruncho and Fernández are not even that interested in the specifics of Chopin’s physical hallucinations. Their real focus is how these hallucinations affect the story we tell of Chopin. They are interested in the mythology of Chopin’s genius.
For all the sickly Romantic geniuses out there who purportedly succumbed to the wild thrall of their passions — Robert Schumann, Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, etc. — there have been as many doctors, psychologists, and literary Darwinists itching to diagnose them. Chopin’s exact diagnosis of temporal lobe epilepsy has also recently been given to Poe, Gustave Flaubert, Philip K. Dick, Sylvia Plath, Lewis Carroll, and others. “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is thus in the tradition of what some call neurotheology, the attempt to medically explain spiritual experiences. The not-always-subtle subtext is that unexplainable visions, or other divine madnesses, have no place in our enlightened, modern world. Neurotheologists have never been comfortable with the idea that romantic visions exist, and far less comfortable with madness as the catalyst for works of genius. The impetus behind these diagnoses is a desire to secularize genius, or to democratize it, and in some cases, to do away with the notion of genius altogether. The aberrant experiences of our great artists and writers have, as a result, often landed them in the loony bin (think Schumann or Robert Walser) or, at the very least, raised serious questions about whether we can distinguish between their illness and their work.
In short, “The hallucinations of Frédéric Chopin” is an attack on the romantic notion of genius. In “Genius and Taste,” a 1918 essay from The Nation, the critic Irving Babbitt discusses the two notions of genius—the neoclassical and the romantic—that are played out so nicely in the exchange between Chopin and Sand above. Whatever our personal opinions about genius are, they likely derive, in part, from one of these camps…