Sunday, August 24th, 2008

I’ve gotta stop reading the newspaper..er..the web as a way to spin down after working late into the night. I look up and it’s 2:30. I think about blogging about what I’ve read, and it’s 3. Now, it’s 4.

I had another one of those moments, here, in mid-night, where I had to shake my head not in a casual “tsk, tsk” kind of way but in a bigger, more brain-throbbing, “nooo….this simply can’t still be like this in 2008″ kind of way. But in my frustration, there are growing rays of hope, worth writing about.

Read (and read all of) A Teacher on the Front Line as Faith and Science Clash by Amy Harmon in the New York Times…about today’s challenges of teaching evolution in the Bible belt. That phrase, by the way, appears nowhere in the article, but I’ve lived down here long enough to feel its presence, tightly squeezing the minds of now several generations of youngsters into a contrived vision of the Earth as a giant playset, arranged just so by…well, by God over the last 10,000 years, tops.

The piece hangs its hook on the positive news that there is a fading resistance to teaching evolution as, well, the proven science that it is. Florida, Harmon reports, is just one of the states which has drafted new standards for the teaching of and testing on the scientific (theory of) evolution. (That parenthetical, inserted in the state’s language, to appease the folks who are still back there in 1925.) They’re drafting standards I think as much from fear of litigation as much as fear of humiliation in the greater community of humankind.

So read about a Florida teacher, David Campbell, representative of those who try to reach the unreachable, who gently offer science straight-up, not with contempt but with a compassion that matches the words (if not deeds) of their Christian charges. They are (and I don’t use this term casually) modern heroes to me…I can’t imagine anything much more challenging in the arena of modern education. They have to deliver information with an coaxing approach that allays unreasonable fear and makes it all right to begin to see a broader, more logical, more scientific world view, outside the doctrinaire confines of the family Bible.

These educators have to face almost incomprehensible ignorance, day after day. And contempt and tuning-out too, of course.

How did we get to this point? We’re decades after I was taught evolution as “no big deal”—as established science…decades after we looked at the Scopes trial as a sepia-toned snapshot of how far we’ve come…and chuckled at the backward attitudes that (I was sure, back in grade school) would be as extinct as the mammoth in a very short time.

It’s as if we’ve generationally backslid, and we’re only now slowly getting back to the quality of understanding that was prevalent in the early 1960s. We’ll be able to figure out how to put a man on the moon (again), soon.

Take a close, close look at the photo at the top of the article, which somehow manages to encapsulate the fear, skepticism, and just plain ignorance that these caring teachers face. The boy in the center is quoted in the article as saying “there’s no way I came from an ape,” as if that’s the big takeaway from an understanding of vast but minute biological changes over almost immeasurable time.

Yet the photo somehow conveys the magic of education at work. There’s the surface skepticism—the bred-in contempt the students have for the scientific method is on the tips of their tongues…but they are listening. They are engaged. They’re just the tiniest bit open to the possibility of learning, growth, change.

And I was delighted to discover one hopeful footnote in the comments attached to the article. One of David Campbell’s former students seems to have emerged into a more examinable, thoughtful world:

Bless Mr. Campbell. He was my high school biology teacher, and this article only begins to illustrate all the ways in which he is an amazing teacher. He constantly challenges his students to think for themselves, to analyze, and to test hypotheses rather than simply accept things at face value. He was the first teacher who ever taught me how, not what, to think, and Mr. Campbell is the reason I am now a biologist, studying evolutionary biology. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, and all biology teachers like you, who, in teaching evolution well, nurture the natural curiosity in young minds.

Thanks to the hard work of (at least) one diligent, engaging teacher, 21st century American public school biological education is…an evolving situation.