Jay Mathews
Jay Mathews
Columnist

We’re smart enough for Darwin debate

During my 20 years as a local reporter and columnist, I have noticed our schools deal with all of the big national education issues — student assessment, budget cuts, teacher quality, disabilities, misbehavior, test manipulation, instructional time and many more.

There is one exception, however. While the rest of the country struggles with how to teach evolution, our educators approach the subject without fear. Nobody threatens them for contradicting the Bible.

Jay Mathews

writes a weekly column about education and the Class Struggle blog.

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That is why I think my suggestion last week that high schools teach alternative theories of evolution would work here even if it might create difficulties elsewhere.

I raised the issue of challenges to Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection because Republican presidential candidate and former senator Rick Santorum has advocated teaching alternative theories such as intelligent design, the view that some supernatural force influenced the development of life on Earth. Santorum and I differ on Darwin. I say the British scientist was right, Santorum says no. But I think if science teachers apply the scientific method to intelligent design, that will enliven their classes and illuminate research principles.

Many readers told me that intelligent design is just a fancy version of creationism, a pseudo-science that uses fallacious interpretations of the data to prove God created man. Intelligent design accepts the Darwinist view that humans and apes have a common ancestor but still attempts to get religion into science classes, those readers said. Sanctioning it for classrooms would misuse science and hurt teaching, they said.

Could that happen here? I don’t think so. I asked Washington Post researcher Eddy Palanzo to search the last 30 years of Post archives for evidence of evolution becoming a major disruptive issue in our local schools. She didn’t find any. In 1985, the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia made news when he supported discussing creationism in the classroom, but he lost. In 1995, The Post had a story about several candidates for the Fairfax County School Board who supported creationism. They didn’t win, either.

One reason is the unusually high level of education in this region. Parents, voters and taxpayers here are more likely to know the research on evolution and see the flaws in attempts to discredit Darwin. According to the 2009 American Community Survey reported by my colleague Daniel de Vise, 47 percent of adults here hold bachelor’s degrees, the highest rate among the nation’s large urban areas. Six of the 10 best-educated counties by that measure are in the Washington area.

Among the many thoughtful messages I received this week on the science-teaching issue was one from evolutionary biologist Sam Scheiner. He has taught a course for secondary school teachers on how to use alternative evolutionary theories in exactly the way I suggested.

“I certainly think that this is something appropriate for freshman college students,” said Scheiner, a former college professor who served on the Arlington County schools science advisory committee. “Similarly, it could be done in a select set of high school classes. Many students could deal with the issue. The key is your sentence, ‘The topic can work in biology class if well taught.’ The problem is not the students, but the teachers.”

Scheiner cites a Newsweek survey that 16 percent of science teachers are creationists. They would preach that doctrine if allowed to. “Then there is the vast majority of biology teachers who simply avoid teaching evolution because they do not know enough about the topic,” he said.

His course was designed to bring them up to speed. The way to present the issue, he said, was: “Is intelligent design (A) not science or (B) bad science?”

That sounds good to me. Couldn’t we try it? Why not start in Arlington, the most educated county in America, where 58 percent of adults have four-year degrees? They would be particularly keen to have their children learn how science works in real life.

For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to postlocal.com.

 
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