Columns » Deborah Mathis

Big bang iin the classroom


In Mrs. Blackwell’s earth science class — eighth grade, 1966 — the portion of study on the origins of the universe was rather brief, if memory serves. Same thing for Miss Futrell’s biology class — 10th grade, 1968. Back then, every angle was couched as “theory.” Big Bang Theory, Creationism Theory, Chaos Theory, Evolution Theory. Notably, the scientific community does not think of “theory “ the same as does the laity. For scientists, theory is a collection of evidence that points to probability. For us ordinarians, it means that no one knows for sure. That’s the way we were taught about the beginning. I don’t recall either teacher endorsing one theory or the other. We were simply shown the various ways humankind had attributed the onset of life. We students were free to choose which theory, if any, to embrace. There was the lesson and a test. Then we moved on to sedimentary rocks and aquifers or anatomy and reproduction. Why things that used to be de rigeur have now become The Big Deal in education suggests a kind of cultural evolution that seems, I must say, backward. Four decades ago, we didn’t have fights about sex education, prayer in schools, creationism vs. evolution, or school uniforms. But, as the society has supposedly matured, we have become increasingly nervous and boisterous about notions that used to go over quietly. Sounds to me like a country without enough to do. I mean, aren’t there new frontiers to explore or even old messes to clean up, or is our things-to-do list so depleted that we’ve got to go back to that worn old battlefield? That tiresome place? It’s been nearly 80 years since the Scopes trial, for heavens sake. Must we go there again? I’ve got my own theory: Certain controversies, like certain fashions, never disappear completely, but are merely shelved until someone needs something to raise hell about, at which point they pull it down, dust it off and return it to service. Call it More Chaos Theory. Or Revolving Static Theory: The more things change, the more they stay the same. In its latest incarnation, the debate on our origins has pitted the American Civil Liberties Union, which does not want creationism included in public-school curricula because its religious context is inherent, against religious fundamentalists — who either do not want evolution included because it collides with the belief that God created every living thing in its present form or else they insist that creationism be taught alongside evolution. This reprise has also introduced new terminology: intelligent design - basically, creationism without naming names. There is a danger that some educator would get carried away with any of the prevailing theories — or come up with one of his or her own — and pound away at it, to the detriment of open, independent young minds. The exposure to the marketplace of ideas — often competing, contradictory ideas — is what real education is about. Indoctrination, either by omission or commission, is a rip-off. Besides, if we can’t get over this hump once and for all, let’s ditch both creationism and evolution, shall we? Because the argument, the stubbornness, the rancor seem neither godly nor evolved.

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