May 22, 2008

Creationism Lingers in U.S. High School Biology Classrooms

Quality secular education is essential for a society to function well. It serves as an effective antidote to ignorance, irrationality, superstition, and many other social ills. Thus, you can understand my disappointment over a recent survey by Penn State University researchers which found that one out of eight high school biology teachers in the United States teaches creationism as a viable alternative to evolution (see Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait).

My heroes have always been teachers (not cowboys). They play an indispensable role, and I have so many excellent teachers to thank for my love of learning, passion for critical thinking, and ability to apply the scientific method to a variety of problems. This is a big part of why I support increased funding for public education even though I do not have children of my own. Teachers deserve better pay and expanded benefits. But even more, they should be recognized as heroes, for theirs is one of the most important and poorly rewarded vocations.

When I examine the results of the Penn State survey, I am dismayed. Of the 939 biology teachers surveyed, 25% indicated that they spent time in class covering creationism. About half of these agreed that creationism was a "valid scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species" and that "many reputable scientists view these as valid alternatives to Darwinian theory." This means that approximately 12% of U.S. high school teachers hold these erroneous views.

If there is one thing I have learned from the excellent teachers throughout my life that has had the biggest impact, it is this simple fact: Just because someone believes something does not make it true. Such a simple truth and yet so powerful when used to dissect irrationality and superstition.

As Brandon Keim of Wired Science correctly points out,
...teaching creationism or intelligent design alongside evolution, as if religious explanations had even a fraction of the scientific validity of evolution, is unacceptable -- it promotes fatally flawed, uncritical thinking.
That the 12% of high school teachers in this survey have not learned that their beliefs do not turn falsehood into truth is unfortunate. However, their willingness to teach this falsehood as if it were true is criminal. This is no longer education but indoctrination. It has no place in our nation's schools.

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