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Freedom and Grace in Tennessee

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August 26, 2012 Tags: Education

Today's entry was written by Katelin A. Fields. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

Freedom and Grace in Tennessee

Towards the end of the last school year, the Tennessee legislature passed the Teacher Protection Academic Freedom Act, a law that became more popularly known as the “Monkey Bill.” I was doing research in a Tennessee high school biology classroom the morning that I learned that the bill had passed, and as the teacher informed her uninterested class about the details, she made the comment that we are "devolving" in the great state of Tennessee instead of "evolving." As a Christian, a biologist, and a soon-to-be educator, I was inclined to agree.

In Tennessee and across the country, many others weighed in on the subject over the next few weeks, including two essays (here and here) on the BioLogos Forum. But soon after that, other issues crowded that story off the front page. Now, though, teachers and students across my state are returning to science classrooms, and we will all get to see what effect the law has in practice. Again speaking as a Christian, a biologist, and educator and drawing on all three of those perspectives, I’d like to offer my own reflections on the bill’s likely effect on Tennessee teachers and students, beginning with this excerpt from the bill itself:

The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy . . . The state board of education, public elementary and secondary school governing authorities, directors of schools, school system administrators, and public elementary and secondary school principals and administrators shall endeavor to assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies. (Tennessee HB368 / SB893)

As an evangelical, I think this bill could be more detrimental than helpful to Christian teenagers’ faith. Many students who are particularly interested in the sciences and theory of evolution are already in the uncomfortable position of hearing pro-Intelligent Design doctrine from the pulpit on Sunday and then listening to their science teacher’s evolution instruction on Monday. I was one of those students—sitting in more than one congregation under pastors who were particularly antagonistic to the theory of evolution, and who made not-so-subtle comments that it cannot co-exist with authentic Christian faith. Having a keen interest in the sciences and wanting to explore the data so widely accepted by the scientific community, I felt confused and ostracized in my church. I wondered if I would have to choose between my faith and intellectual integrity. The church family I trusted clashed with the science that I also trusted, causing a near catastrophe for my faith. I am thankful to the few people who offered me grace, allowing for my questioning of some of what I heard in church without labeling me a heretic.

Though the conservative Christian community may view this bill as a “win for the faith,” it is actually a loss if it reinforces the idea that this is simply an issue of science vs. scripture. Evolution is central to modern biology; trust in the authority of the Scriptures is central to Christian faith. But this fight mentality between the two established communities is detrimental to our young teenagers who are seeking to grow in faith, but who cannot seem to reconcile scripture and scientific data. We need them to seek after that reconciliation, not be told it can’t be done. Whatever they are hearing from the pulpit, the science classroom should be the one place that students can learn science. Students may well emerge with bitterness towards the church for dismissing the evidence of evolution not only so quickly, but in what is so often a haughty and condescending manner. Worse yet, students may emerge with bitterness that they were forced to choose between faith and intellectual integrity. Is this really an all or nothing argument? Are the two truly diametrically opposed?

In my world, these two have reconciled, and they now co-exist in peace. It has been a very long road to get there and I could not have done it without both access to good data and the freedom to explore it. Having taught teenagers in an evangelical church for years and having observed in many biology classrooms as well, I know that many students are still struggling for this same reconciliation. That reconciliation is perhaps most easily attained when the seeking student is able investigate evolution in the science classroom without harassment from opposing religious forces. With this freedom, the student may very well realize that the fear that he/she may have regarding evolution is really just a fear of the unknown, and that it is possible to have intellectual integrity and to praise God for initiating and sustaining the evolutionary process.

In Tennessee’s science classrooms there are surely many teachers who begrudge being told that they must teach evolution, and who are relieved that they can now present it as a controversy and/or allow Intelligent Design as an alternative. They, too, will likely see this law as a “win.” But isn’t public science education is about giving students an accurate picture of the state of science, not about teachers’ philosophical opinions? As has been pointed out before, most Tennessee science teachers have not had the training to teach about religion or philosophy; they have been trained to teach about the basic principles of the biological world.

This bill may be particularly frustrating, then, to teachers who do simply want to teach science. From the many hours I’ve spent in secondary biology classrooms this year, I can say for sure that time is of the essence. Tennessee teachers have barely enough instructional time to cover what students must know to pass the end-of-course biology test required for graduation; they do not have extra time to spend covering material that is not science. I have seen classroom arguments over evolution’s feasibility that ate away precious instruction time and only left a greater rift between the two camps and no doubt, a frustrated teacher. News of the Intelligent Design movement’s success in creating political and legal controversy is misplaced content in the secondary biology classroom.

Furthermore, as it allows teachers to frame biological evolution in terms of “controversy”— something that is a topic for debate—this law will likely not result in students who are more engaged in understanding science, but instead, only in more confusion (and possibly antagonism) in the classroom. Educators welcome debate in many cases because debate encourages critical thinking that leads to “formal thought,” the Holy Grail of Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. But the practice of science is about proposing hypotheses and testing the data, not primarily argumentation. And if the science community is not “debating” evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum?

The bill is correct in stating that the purpose of science education is to “inform students about scientific evidence” and “help students develop critical thinking skills necessary to becoming intelligent, productive, and scientifically informed citizens.” I certainly agree, though I question whether it needed to be legislated. Rather, my answer is: “Let’s actually do it!” Before bringing “debate” and “controversy” about scientific theories into the classroom, let’s instead teach our students about sound scientific practice; let’s give them opportunities to learn how to research and to employ the scientific method in everyday life. Let’s focus on teaching them about observing the indicators of climate change, the intricacies of DNA, conservation of ecosystems, and the principles of molecular and cell biology. Let’s give them the tools—specific to science— that help them think critically and work out problems, rather than undermining faith in those very practices and the community of people that uses them every day. Let’s not teach them to live in denial of the ordinary dependability of science, let’s not teach them to distrust scientists who have no interest in “debate,” but want to understand the world God made.

In Tennessee and elsewhere, let’s give both our students and those scientists the grace and support they need to merge authentic faith and intellectual integrity.


Kate Fields is a graduate biology student at Austin Peay State University where she is conducting biology pedagogy research in Tennessee secondary biology classrooms. She is a lover of Christ, all things science, a good cup of coffee, very short hair, laughing until crying, and the triathlon. Though sometimes she can barely work a toaster, she enjoys writing about it and the joys and pains of this journey called life, and prays for a few traveling mercies along the way. You can catch up with her by way of her blog: katemusingsoflate.blogspot.com or on Twitter: @SojournerKate

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Gregory - #72202

August 26th 2012

“I was doing research in a Tennessee high school biology classroom…” – Kate Fields

That’s pedagogical research, you mean, not ‘scientific’ research, right? Iow, it was not biology research that was being done in a high school classroom that day.

“she made the comment that we are ‘devolving’ in the great state of Tennessee instead of ‘evolving’.” – Kate Fields

I wonder what does ‘devolving’ mean in this context. Is this a high school biology teacher speaking (with authority) about the state of humanity and its/our development today?

“But isn’t public science education is about giving students an accurate picture of the state of science, not about teachers’ philosophical opinions? As has been pointed out before, most Tennessee science teachers have not had the training to teach about religion or philosophy; they have been trained to teach about the basic principles of the biological world.” – Kate Fields

Do you not then support and promote a positive, constructive dialogue between science, philosophy and religion? Wouldn’t you advocate that more high school (biological) science teachers in the USA then need to study history and philosophy of science and even possibly the much newer field called ‘theology of science’ in order to help them achieve balance in a highly imbalanced and currently unsafe intellectual situation? Or do you really want the 90+% atheist evolutionary biologists dictating to your family’s children from on-high pretending that they are “just being philosophically neutral” and thus showing that science proves there is no need for extra-scientific explanations like philosophy (e.g. philosophical anthropology) and theology about origins of life and human beings?

Alistair McGrath, whose views are promoted at BioLogos, writes of ‘scientific theology.’

Loving “all things science” is fine, as obviously limited as that is. Loving all things philosophy is likewise fine, as limited as that is. Loving all things theology is fine, as limited as that is. (Same goes for loving all things music or sports.) Isn’t it time to put these three major realms together in fruitful dialogue, so that “all things” are on the road to being united or complementary instead of divided and oppositional?

“News of the Intelligent Design movement’s success in creating political and legal controversy is misplaced content in the secondary biology classroom.” – Kate Fields

Yes, I agree. Where do you propose it be discussed in the secondary educational world then? Obviously there is a felt need for this conversation either in or outside of USA schools.

“And if the science community is not ‘debating’ evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum?” – Kate Fields

In regard to the so-called “the scientific community,” check out D. Allchin, J. Shapiro, M. Denton and L. Margulis. They all actually *are* (or were, RIP Margulis) debating evolution and whether it happened as C. Darwin postulated 150 years ago or if there is a new, better, post-Darwinian, while even still likely ‘evolutionary’ way to speak about natural history, ancient and modern. Would you please acknowledge that this ‘debate’ or ‘looking at anomalies’ is going on, in case you are aware of it, rather than sweeping it/them under the table as inaccessible to grade-school students? Students today have the internet to discover these things, after all (“Lynn Margulis” gets over 450,000 hits, “Michael Denton” almost 200,000 and “James A. Shapiro” almost 100,000). [Surprisingly, Margulis gets more hits than “John Polkinghorne”!!]

Is there a single technique called “The scientific method” vs. “Many scientific methods”? This dispute has already been won by ‘Many.’ I’d be curious to hear if Kate Fields has taken a semester or year-long course in History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) or Sociology of Science (SoS) in her biological-pedagogical studies. That should have cleared up the language issue from the first day.

 

Gregory, PhD

& also Science Pedagogy Researcher


wesseldawn - #72223

August 27th 2012

If this article is an indication I dare say that you are probably a very good teacher as you stay on topic.

But the practice of science is about proposing hypotheses and testing the data, not primarily argumentation. And if the science community is not “debating” evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum?

I suppose the debate is really that evolution does not need God! That said, I agree with you that science classrooms should be for learning about science and not discussing issues of personal faith. The difficulty is that “Christian” colleges and universities cannot avoid the debates because of being religious. Give me a secular university any day as they are not conflicted.


groovimus - #72404

September 3rd 2012

“And if the science community is not “debating” evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum? “

In similar fashion to Gregory I would draw attention to the implication that the science community is not debating evolution. The science community is doing more than debating evolution, many are seemingly losing control of their emotions over the debate:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/high-level_defe063751.html

And more news confounding Darwinists:

http://www.evolutionnews.org/2012/08/high-level_defe063751.html

 

 


wesseldawn - #72412

September 3rd 2012

Nevertheless, those arguments don’t center around “personal” issues that use up precious time that could be better spent elsewhere. Afterall, the idea behind university/colleges is to get an “education”...there are seminaries for theological issues!


Darwin Guy Dan - #73285

October 2nd 2012

Katelin A. Fields,

“Evolution is central to modern biology”

I understand this to be one of the standard clichés that Evolutionists have used over the decades.  But one might ask, how is “evolution” central to modern biology?  If “evolution” is central, how is it of significance?  Significance, it seems to me is dependent upon the definition being used.

Another issue is that there is a distinction that needs to be made between modern contemporary biology, for which there is no public controversy that I am aware, and natural history where the controversy with your religious community is focused.  NH is dependent upon modern science (including biology) for its investigative tools.  But modern science, clearly, isn’t informed much by NH. You might ask Francis Collins at N.I.H. how much time they spend discussing N.H.

“{T}he practice of science is about proposing hypotheses and testing the data, not primarily argumentation.”

You might Google “scientific method” and expand your thought some.  Personally, I would place greater emphasis on observing nature (directly or indirectly as through a microscope), collecting and verifying data based on those observations, making measurements as necessary, and then verifying and organizing the observationally based “facts” of science.  Hypotheses concerning those facts might be made, perhaps laws discovered and predictions from those laws made and verified.  Theories might be developed to explain the data and laws.   (Actually, much of this, especially theorizing, seems a little beyond the HS level but perhaps not.?)

Based on my formal education, brief experience, and decades of informal studies, in science basic observations are repeatedly VERIFIED by various observers to assure their objective validity.  Laws are tested and confirmed by the verified observations these laws predicted. Theories are said to be confirmed to various levels of confidence. But no matter how well confirmed a theory becomes, in science, theories are not properly labeled “facts.”  Scientific facts are observables: real entities, singular events, phenomena (all observables).  Well confirmed hypotheses or inferences drawn from facts or hypotheses are not properly labeled scientific facts themselves.  (Speculated or inferred common ancestors, for example, are not “facts” whereas predictions from Newton’s laws may result in observable facts that confirm the law and are also of interest in and of themselves. Gravity is not a “scientific fact” but an inference which some philosophers label a construct. There are also laws and theories of gravity.  Observations and measurements of apples falling are repeatedly verified and then become facts. In science, facts are observables. Unfortunately, the term “construct” hasn’t been much evident in the literature.)

 


Darwin Guy Dan - #73286

October 2nd 2012

Katelin A. Fields,  (Cont.):

“And if the science community is not ‘debating’ evolution, why should high school science students be debating evolution as part of their biology curriculum?”

I couldn’t agree with you more.  Here, I assume you are referring to a definition of “evolution” which is inclusive of common ancestry as being the core idea.  As you would be well aware, common ancestry has long been the primary hot button issue of controversy but not within academia.  Academics have long assumed common ancestry as a truth certainty and have held this erroneous (in my view) belief since soon after Darwin published (1859).  See, for example George John Romanes’ free ebook THE EVIDENCES FOR ORGANIC EVOLUTION ([1877], 1882) where “evolution” is stated (unfortunately for empirical science) as being a “fact” and this cliché of truth certainty has been received and retaught for generations.  But repetition of an assumption doesn’t confirm the assumption.  As far as I am aware, there has been little discussion over the years by the Evolutionary community itself regards Evolution (common ancestry).  Rather Evolutionists have assumed Evolution to be true and rather debated “evolution” as defined by some variant of “descent with modifications” for which there is little concern outside of academia.  Academics have, for example, long discussed matters such as species variation, causes and mechanisms thereof, etc.  But, as you indicated, academics have not been discussing Evolution (common descent) itself.

My guess is that a large part of the controversy regards “evolution” is that you, as an academic yourself, undoubtedly have emphasized a broader and more complete understanding of the meaning than your religious community.  Everyone outside of academia inherently understands and focuses on the meaning of Evolution to be inclusive of common ancestry and Darwin’s theory, the Monkey Trial, etc.

I have a copy of Miller (of Dover PA 2005 trial fame) and Levine’s BIOLOGY (2002).  If the textbook you are using is comparable to theirs, then I am at a loss to understand how any student can be expected to absorb that much material in four years much less one.  I have been briefly  attempting to discover how, in BIOLOGY, one might separate contemporary biology from natural history.  Natural history seems to be fairly well confined to Unit 5 which includes “Darwin’s Theory of Evolution,” “Evolution of Populations,” “The History of Life,” and “Classification.”  Some sort of knowledge regards classification of various modern “species” is undoubtedly useful to most students.  The Linnaean system or others have been around since before Darwin and are not controversial outside of academia.  It seems to me that Natural History and the History of Science ought to be separate electives for those interested in such matters.

It also seems that, for those students not taking a full course in geometry, some time needs to be found—- a few weeks, or even a few days—- for some Euclidean logic.  In my view, everyone ought to be able to agree on the scientific facts (i.e., observables) and definitions and also know what the assumptions are and be willing to accept the assumptions as being just that.

Dan, a.k.a. NaturalHistoryGuy / LocalTransportationGuy

P.S. The late Lynn Margulis (noted for her work regards symbiosis) defined “evolution” as “change over time.”  (She also continued to accept common descent, etc.)  Evolutionists could certainly spend the next 153 years spinning their wheels on “change over time.”  But do the taxpayers of TN want to fund such studies?

 


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