Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The Silent Treatment

From today's New York Times:

Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Ala., recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.

“She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she'd get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it,” he recalled. “She told me other teachers were doing the same thing.”

Though the teaching of evolution makes the news when officials propose, as they did in Georgia, that evolution disclaimers be affixed to science textbooks, or that creationism be taught along with evolution in biology classes, stories like the one Dr. Frandsen tells are more common.

In districts around the country, even when evolution is in the curriculum it may not be in the classroom, according to researchers who follow the issue.

Teaching guides and textbooks may meet the approval of biologists, but superintendents or principals discourage teachers from discussing it. Or teachers themselves avoid the topic, fearing protests from fundamentalists in their communities.

Sadly, this is old news. States can write whatever standards they want, but that doesn't always translate into good education in the classroom. That doesn't mean the standards are unimportant (as the article notes elsewhere, there are many teachers who would love to teach creationism overtly, and would happily use an ambiguous standard as an excuse for doing so), but it does mean the battle doesn't end there.

Fundamentalists see themselves as uniquely good in a world of secular evil. Their greatest fear for their children is that they will be corrupted by non-Christian influences.

I have blogged about this before, but I will never forget the mother I heard call into a Christian radio program who said, obviously distraught, “My family recently suffered a devastating tragedy. Unlike the previous caller, my child isn't dead, but to me it feels just as permanent. Recently my son called home and told me he had become an atheist.”

I think that mindset is very common in many of these smaller Southern and Midwestern towns, where religious fundamentalists are a dominant majority. Raising children is about protecting them from non-Christian influences, not about exposing them to a variety of ideas or giving them the intellectual tools to do great things in life. The public schools begin with two strikes against them, since they are run by the secular government. Add evolution to the mix and school becomes an all-out assualt on their child's soul.

This worldview is insane, it glories in its resistance to facts and logic, and it is absolutely exasperating to deal with, but it is no less common for that. In many states a majority of the people either accept this view of the world, or sympathize with those who do.

Anyway, P. Z. Myers has already done my railing for me in this post. I'll simply close by pointing out that this is the reason tenure exists. It would be impossible to be a professional scientist in the red states without it.


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