FEd April 1996 Newsletter - Editorial

April 1996



Previous Newsletters

Current Issue

Contact the Editor

Editorial: The State of Education

by Stan Jones

Although it is not my native state, I have lived long enough in Alabama to learn to love many things about it. As I write this in early March, in short sleeves with the windows open, knowing the pear trees are already in bloom, I feel sorry for my friends up north who still have a considerable amount of winter ahead of them. But there are aspects of life in Alabama that I am sure my northern colleagues do not envy...such as the remarkable decision of our state school board to insert in every high school biology text a supplement explaining that evolution is just a theory. Surely this happens only in the bible belt...or does it?

The subject of evolution vs. creationism is just one of many issues that arise when citizens try to instill their particular set of values into the curriculum. Banning of books is another way, and placing restrictions on "family life" or "health education" courses is another. To one degree or another, we face these conflicts all over the country. I see all these issues as arising from a basic misunderstanding of the fundamental purpose of education. I will try to make this point by focusing on the creationism conflict.

Of course, I do not teach evolution, and in fact don't have much occasion to discuss the big bang either, which tends to get trashed along with evolution. But I consider this to be part of the great body of science, and somehow to reject part is to reject the scientific approach itself. It then becomes a matter of little concern to such people if (for instance) support for scientific research is cut sharply in budget-balancing negotiations in Congress. Opposition to evolution is just a symptom of the lack of acceptance of the scientific view of the world.

To me, creationism is a case of rejecting conclusions based on rather solid evidence, and believing instead in a theory which has little experimental support. This occurs in other places: people insist on believing in e.s.p., astrology, or telekinesis in spite of the scientific evidence against them. Even when shown in cleverly arranged demonstrations that horoscopes have no basis (all the people in the audience are secretly given the same horoscope, yet all attest that it suits them very well), people go on as they did before, using them to plan their activities. This is an attitude that cannot understand or value scientific research.

There is a deeper level at which this mentality is dangerous to our country. It is not just a rejection of science, but of education as a whole. Maybe I'm stretching things here, but I believe that the attitude which rejects science is the same attitude that rejects the educational system itself. Although most Americans would deny it, this country really does not place a high priority on education. It is seen as a necessary route to better wages, but not as a way to develop thinking skills. It is in this sense that I say that the public does not really understand the fundamental purpose of education. I see this as a serious threat to our educational system, and as a consequence to our future health as a society.

Because we do not truly value education itself, we repeatedly deny adequate funding for education, at all levels. Although the justification given is that a proposed tax was unfair, or that there is too much waste in the education system, the bottom line is that neither the community, the state, nor the federal government has ever funded education adequately. Teachers continue to be among the lowest paid professionals, and they are not given the support research shows they need to properly teach our children. School facilities are crumbling, and all evidence shows that American children fall behind most other developed countries in achievement. If we cared, we would do something about it, even though it costs money.

There is a chicken and egg aspect to this problem: perhaps the public doesn't understand science or value education because we are not doing a good job of the educational process itself. This is of course the main way in which we can combat an anti-education mentality: through education itself. We must show not only that education leads to a better lifestyle, but also to clearer- thinking, more adaptable, more understanding citizens.

Last week the voters of my county rejected a property tax increase intended to build new schools ( we have so many temporary classrooms in the county that one school was mistaken for a mobile home park). I reflected on hearing this news that the people of Alabama do not care that much for evolution, and that in fact they don't care that much about education, either. I'm afraid this is happening all over America.

N.B. Shortly after this was written, an unseasonably malicious cold front came through, turning all the pear blossoms to a dead brown. It was about this same time that our governor, using his discretionary funds, purchased and mailed to 900 biology teachers throughout the state a copy of the anti-evolution treatise Darwin on Trial. So it goes.