Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Should education be democratic?

There has been a lot of attention paid to a recent poll showing that only 29% of Americans see the Democratic Party as “friendly to religion,” down from 40% only last year.

Fare less attention however, has focused on another part of the same poll, which found that nearly 2/3 of Americans believe that “creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.”

While “only” 42% of people could be called “strict creationists,” “64 percent said they were open to the idea of teaching creationism in addition to evolution, while 38 percent favored replacing evolution with creationism.”

(For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that the poll is indeed accurate and representative)

The idea of “teaching the debate” has been endorsed by President Bush as well as several other prominent politicians and raises the question, regardless of how you feel about the whole debate, should a democracy teach its children what it wants, or should it let the so-called “experts” decide? In other words, should historians, scientists (both social and physical), mathematicians, economists, etc. teach based on the best evidence and structures of its own discipline suggest, or based on what parents want?

My contention is that once deciding on the subjects to be taught in public schools, parents should either allow the academic community determine specific material, or withdraw their children from public schools.

The reasons for this have nothing to do with whether or not creationism is correct (it very well may be. Since it is not falsifiable, we will likely never know… at least on this earth). The reasons education should not be democratic are the following:

1) Expertise: Though it may sound elitist, people simply do not have the expertise to determine what is appropriate and what is not. Evolution is simply not a serious debate within the scientific community, though many questions remain unanswered. In short, scientists in the field and in academia should make the call on what to teach just as surely as military commanders and not the public should determine military strategy.

2) Fairness: Even if we were to open up education to democracy, how would it work? The idea of each school district determining its own curriculum is not only unfair to students, but will make it exceedingly difficult to develop standardized tests that are so popular today. Making it state-wide suffers the problem that many states (such as Pennsylvania and Ohio to name just two) are extremely diverse. What if 99% of a community is outvoted in a state-wide vote?

3) Slippery-slope: Although biology is obviously a hot-topic right now, letting public pressure force creationism opens the door to other areas. Should history classes only teach about the “good” parts of American history so that students have an appreciation for our country? Perhaps they should only teach the “bad” parts so that students have an appreciation for our historical crimes?

4) Pragmatic: Earlier this year, Bill Gates noted that "If you look at the trend 10 years ago, the U.S. and China were not that different in terms of the number of engineers graduated. Now we have one-quarter the number of engineers, and the trend is continuing, with the U.S. number going down, and China going up quite a bit...We need to improve our own game, to make sure own slice of the pie stays very large." Declan McCullagh points out the details, “In 2002, China and India graduated five times as many engineers as did the United States, which ranks a dismal 19th in eighth-grade math skills. Japan, South Korea, Norway and the Czech Republic boast far higher high-school graduation rates.”

In other words, the US is not doing so hot educationally compared to some of our economic competitors. Will teaching creationism have any effect on this? Certainly not directly, but indirectly, it is a further erosion of teachers ability to prepare students for a marketplace in which science and technology, and a perspective that appreciates evidence and the scientific method are valued and rewarded.

In short, choosing whether or not to fund education and by how much should certainly be open to democratic debate. However, once public education is adopted, and the subjects to be taught decided upon, I do not believe that the democratic process should continue into the classroom, but rather should be decided by their own respective experts. This is not because those experts are always right or that average Americans are stupid. But perhaps rather than force biologists to teach creationism, we would be better off creating specific classes that could address the debate in a more appropriate forum.

1 comment:

montana urban legend said...

For now we can rely on two of the few remaining reasons behind our still-competitive corner of the global economy - tech and biotech/pharma. However, with increasing restrictions on importing scientists and decreasing constraints on building workplaces for them abroad, it won't be long until Johnny, the budding young home-schooled creationist, finds that the medical research lab is not all that hospitable to divine intervention. Meanwhile, the PCR machine, the hybridization assays, and the genome-wide, cross-species comparitive bioinformatics software searches will be mastered by someone with a little more ingenuity, with American citizenship or not, whose parents refused to instill in him an urge to ascribe what they didn't yet know to "the unknowable."

How, praytell, was the designer designed?

Who or what designed such an "intelligent designer?"

Ssshhhh, don't tell me - I understand. The answer's unknowable. Either that or the designer must have been designed by something or someone really stupid.