Thursday, October 06, 2005

Origins and Education

So everything that I've said so far about the SYEC/ID/Evolution issue is theory, philosophy. One of the real world issues - and the most interesting one in my mind - is the question of choosing content of elementary/high school science classes.

A topic was brought up in the previous posts' comments section. Shona said the parents should have more say than "the state."

Sigh. Exactly what the "state" is is a year's worth of blogging in itself. But to cut to the conclusion, I have never thought that this issue was a polar split between parents and the state. I'm not even sure what the state has to do with this question; textbook publishers are private organizations.

Here's the standard chain of events in getting content to the classroom. A private publisher checks the demographics. Which markets are the biggest? Because textbooks are about selling to markets. How many textbooks would a particular district buy, and what material would be of interest to that district? For example, in the US, the publisher checks how many presidents came from the biggest and wealthiest district - and then they discuss those presidents far more in their textbook.

And guess what? Districts with smaller markets get to use the same textbooks. If your area only buys a small number of textbooks, don't expect to see any local content. Textbooks aren't a matter of state indoctrination, they are a matter of business and markets. Hence Of Pandas and People's little stunt.

That reality aside, is there an ideal? If I was a parent, what would I want to see in the public schools? Which textbooks should be bought?

A little story. Several groups of Native Canadians believe that they have inhabited this continent since the beginning of time. They reject the Bering Straits idea, basically. A variation on this is found among the Inuit people; they have their own myths.

Currently, in some schools dominated by Inuit, children are taught Inuit myths in their history classes. They aren't taught about Confederation or WWI or about the Bering land bridge.

The parents are certainly happy. And really now, who's to say that the Inuit haven't been in North America all along? Archeology is is an imprecise science. And the dates for the introduction of humans to North America keep moving farther and farther back!

If you happened to live in an Inuit community, would you be annoyed that your child was learning Inuit myth rather than history?

Or would you prefer that the schools use textbooks developed with the aid of mainstream archeologists?

In Dover, Of Pandas and People is an extremely popular local choice. Readers, raise your hand if you want that textbook used to teach your kids.

Contra all this concern, there is a simple reality here. Whatever is taught in elementary and high schools is almost inconsequential. Usually it is taught in a half assed way and learned in a one quarter ass way. University professors know their incoming students are basically ignorant, in all fields.

Still, if a student spends his early years learning about how Noah's flood could really have happened, he will be even more unequipped than the average student for a university level geology course.

If I was a parent, I would want my children learning material that has filtered down from a mainstream university. I would want to know that my child was being prepared for a university education, as much as is practically possible. I wouldn't want my child's education to be dominated by local eccentricities. Buy textbooks published by a reputable company, developed with the close aid of the relevant experts. Mainstream experts.

And by the way, the reason I started this whole series was President Bush saying that he thinks ID should be taught in schools. Does that make ID state indoctrination?

The primary legal issue here is that of church and state. In the US, this has been the major sticking issue for the Origins debate in schools. In case after case through the 20th century, attempts to censure Evolution have been struck down becuase of their clearly religious nature. At this stage in the theory's development, ID is unmistakably religious - especially since so many SYECers are willing to paint their beliefs with a thin coat of "irreducible complexity."

Teaching SYEC or ID in a science class is equivelent to teaching Inuit myth in a history class. It is also equivilant to teaching about Thor's lightening bolts in a climate class.

And with that.. I close this chapter of Open Texture. Hopefully I'll remember to update the contents page soon.

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