Sunday, November 27, 2011

Reading Across the Curriculum and Against the Grain

The other day when I was tutoring a sixth grader, I found out that she had never heard of the theory of evolution or of Darwin. She was asking a lot of very good questions about how language evolved, who invented it, etc, and I mentioned the fact that nobody knows, for example, if Neanderthals had language, and that some primates seem able to learn sign language. She had never heard of Neanderthals. I said that they were a species of hominid that lived in Europe till around 50,000 years ago and then went extinct. I thought her eyes would pop out of her head when I said that! She seemed amazed that there were other kinds of "people" besides Homo sapiens. I mentioned that all hominids were primates, and that chimps, gorillas, and humans were probably descended from a common ancestor, the so-called "missing link." She was intrigued and amazed.

So yesterday when I went to her house, I brought a book about human evolution called The Human Odyssey: Four Million Years of Human Evolution.  She snatched it from my hands as if it were a banned book, which in a way it is. In Texas, as in many other American states, teachers shy away from discussing evolution because it can get them in serious trouble.  A school administrator at the state level was fired for being critical of "intelligent design." It is not exactly illegal to teach the theory of evolution in Texas, but since both Governor Perry and former Governor Bush expressed support for "intelligent design," it is risky for teachers to touch the subject at all. I imagine that most of them just skip that chapter in their textbooks.

Textbooks are a very contentious battleground in Texas.  Texas is the second-largest market for school textbooks in the country, and if a textbook is adopted in Texas, it is a success for publishers. But an elderly couple in Texas, Mel and Norma Gabler, has for many years held a stranglehold over the content of Texas textbooks: if they decide a book is "anti-family" or "anti-Christian," it effectively cannot be adopted in Texas.

I have always wondered why students read widely outside of textbooks in English class, but not in history or science classes. Even if they have a textbook in English class, it is usually an anthology of primary sources. Not so in history or science. But history and science textbooks for elementary and high school students are so dumbed down, and so watered down, so as to avoid offending the Gablers and their ilk, that one's eyes glaze over trying to read them.

This is nothing new: history textbooks for children in the South for many years elided the real reasons for the Civil War: slavery. Although Southern politicians, when the war began, stated clearly that the purpose of the war was to preserve slavery, after the war some revisionism set in: it was said that the purpose of the war had been to preserve "states' rights." I remember as a child reading a book about Nathan Bedford Forrest that never mentioned slavery; it said the war began because Lincoln was elected!  Well, sort of...

At some point--maybe about sixth grade, in 1966--I realized that the adults were hiding something from me, and I set about to find the truth. I read every book I could find in my grandparents' house about the Civil War. But alas, they were all military histories, with almost no information about slavery or the political economy of the antebellum South, much less about the Jim Crow South that I still lived in. I heard about Jim Crow in 8th grade--they could hardly hide it from us by 1968--but I still didn't understand what it meant. I didn't understand that segregation had been de jure, and that blacks had a hard time voting. Textbooks back then didn't explain all that, and I could not get the real books I needed to understand the underpinnings and history of my own society. The situation was urgent, as the Civil Rights Movement was active in Nashville, to the point one time that riots were feared and tanks were parked, just in case, not far from our house. I knew something big was afoot, but the grownups--teachers and parents alike--were not talking. There was a Big Secret, clearly.

(There was at least one book that arrived in my parents' house, courtesy of the Book of the Month Club, that could have filled in some of the gaps in my understanding: The Confessions of Nat Turner, by William Styron. But that book was snatched away almost as soon as it arrived, and my mother told me that it was unsuitable for me to read. She was probably right that it shouldn't be on the reading list of seventh graders.)

So, what does all this have to do with a book about human evolution? The new battleground for the hearts and minds of children is not in the field of history any more: kids know all about the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, the Middle Passage, and Jim Crow now. What they DON'T know, in many parts of the country and in a great many schools, is that there is no real argument among scientists about whether or not Darwin's theory of natural selection is largely true. It is true. Yes, it is a "theory," but there is a big difference between a "theory" in science, which can be tested with experiments, and literary theories, for example, which are just somebody's opinion. The theory of evolution is not just an opinion, and there are not really "two sides" to it, as the Intelligent Design proponents would like for your kids to believe.

It's obvious why white teachers and parents in the South tried to hide the reality of racism from white children: they knew it was indefensible, illogical, and inhumane.  Maybe they were even a bit ashamed of it. But why do so many Christian teachers and parents now want to hide a scientific reality from children? Most Christians don't dispute gravity, or that the earth revolves around the sun. Why do they pick on Darwin?

I can't claim to have a definitive answer on this, but I have some guesses. My most charitable answer is that for some people it is genuinely troubling to consider the possibility that God didn't personally create them for a purpose, but instead, evolution rather randomly generated trial balloons, as it were, and then popped some of them through natural selection. The survivors are the ancestors of you and me. Evolution does not have a grand purpose or a grand design for anybody, including you. It just is.  I can live with that; I think it's kind of humorous, actually, perhaps in a dark way. It has a Dada quality to it that I like. But it's not for everybody.

There is some evidence that there are some real hard-core Christian believers who think that the Enlightenment was a big mistake, and that we should return to some sort of theocracy. For these people, science, democracy, secularism, and "materialism" are the enemy and must be discredited and then destroyed. This is very scary, but I don't think Americans will go for it, when push comes to shove.

My best guess is that the majority of politicians and public figures who support the teaching of Intelligent Design as a comparable and competing theory to the theory of evolution are just extremely cynical exploiters of a potent wedge issue. For them, the controversy over the teaching of evolution is just another emotional issue to exploit, like abortion. They know that poorly educated people can easily be whipped up into a paranoid frenzy about the possibility that their kids are being taught by atheist teachers who want to persuade the kids that the Bible is wrong, and who want to abolish Christmas, or the Bible, or both. This exploitation of ignorance for political purposes, coupled with the abetting of more ignorance, is contemptible. It hurts our country by depriving children of a complete science education.

There is also the possibility that some right-wingers believe that by discrediting science generally, they can discredit climate science, which they see as a threat to untrammeled capitalism, and oil revenues more specifically.

Luckily, there are books other than textbooks. I hunted them down during the Civil Rights era, and although I was not particularly successful at finding books then that answered my questions, I did find such books later in life. Faulkner finally clued me in as to what had been going on for a couple of hundred years in my part of the world. So hand out all the non-textbooks you can find to kids, and not just Harry Potter books, but non-fiction books about history and science. They aren't reading them for school.

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