Culture At Large

On the frontlines of the creation/evolution wars: one teacher's story

Andy Rau

I'm not a schoolteacher, but I've always imagined that teaching high school biology must be a bit like walking through a minefield: say the wrong thing about evolution here and outraged parents mob you; say the wrong thing about creation there and... angry parents mob you. It's probably not quite that dramatic in real life, but ever-changing state policies about what can and can't be taught in the science classroom make me feel dizzy just reading about them.

Which is a long way of introducing the story of one science teacher's experience teaching the concepts of evolution to a student with strong creationist beliefs. The story is definitely sympathetic to the science teacher (a 52-year-old Anglican), but not hostile to the student who repeatedly challenges the teacher's teaching of evolution.

What's your reaction to the story?

I had a few thoughts as I read it:

  • I'm still glad I'm not a science teacher. As the article describes it, teachers are given a "mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how," and as a result "are contriving their own ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan." That sounds like a great way to get mobbed by outraged parents from one or both sides of the Culture Wars.
  • I'm a little frustrated to read things like this:
    Some [creationist students] come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out.

    The article later notes that a book specifically refuting the class textbook was circulated through the class, to the consternation of the teacher. On the one hand, I'm all for helping students think critically about the ideas they're taught at school... but is sending your kids to school with that sort of confrontational attitude the best way to do that? It's hard to think critically about evolution if you've memorized ten easy refutations of it before the teacher has a chance to present it.

Ultimately, it looks like this particular classroom is doing OK: the teacher finds ways to creatively teach the subject of evolution, the students have ample opportunity to disagree, and hopefully some education is happening amidst all that.

Is this story familiar to you? Have you experienced this particular angle of the Culture Wars, either as a teacher or a student? Would you advise either the teacher or the student in this story to behave differently? And with all the controversy surrounding the teaching of evolution, do you see any good ways for teachers and students to meet in the middle?

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, News & Politics, Education