History, contrary to popular theories, *is* kings and dates and battles.
- Terry Pratchett, Small Gods
It seems that Louisiana has passed a law that allows for “supplemental materials” in classrooms to tackle “controversies” such as, but not limited to, cloning, “the origins of life”, and of course the real target, evolution. I’m not actually as exercised about this as I might be; I think one of two things will happen. One, litigation will strike it down for the zillionth time; just putting “shall not be construed to be any endorsement of religion or nonreligion” in the bill doesn’t mean the court isn’t just going to go ahead and construe the hell out of it anyway. When your primary backers are a conservative Christian organization and the Discovery Institute, the motives aren’t exactly difficult to tease out. Two, the same thing will happen as happened to Kansas when they tried to excise evolution from the classroom; things will be quietly reversed after the state discovers that universities no longer want students educated in their state. Louisiana is a repeat offender in this respect, as a search of the National Center For Science Education will quickly make apparent; it seems they never tire of spending taxpayer money on losing legal cases, and on stuff from the Discovery Institute and its ancestor organizations.
In any case, the bill relies on one of the ID movement’s very favorite defenses, which is that they’re only trying to “give students critical thinking skills” by “teaching the controversy”. Completely putting aside the fact that it’s trivially obvious that’s not really what they’re trying to do, why, on the face of it, is this a bad argument? Doesn’t evolution enjoy a protected status as a topic inside a science classroom that it doesn’t out in the wider world? Isn’t teaching students critical thinking skills good?
For one, let’s dispense with the most obvious argument, which is that in no other subjects do we teach “a controversy” in which a given field agrees on one side of the argument and a fringe broadly recognized as lunatic doesn’t. We don’t teach the controversy of homeopathy in chemistry classrooms, we don’t teach the controversy of geocentrism in physics, we don’t teach the controversy of holocaust denialism in history*. There are huge numbers of controversies within evolutionary theory- like the relative impacts of direct selective pressure versus neutral selection and genetic drift, how fast evolutionary change “normally” goes and under what circumstances (punctuated equilibrium versus gradualism, itself old enough a “controversy” that it’s not considered much of one anymore), or the impact of horizontal transfer in bacteria and how asexual species handle genetic load- but they are never taught in public school classrooms, partly because that’s not at all what the people pushing for “teaching the controversy” have in mind and partly because the understanding required to evaluate them is well above the K-12 level.
The next obvious argument is that students who are unaware of the controversy must have been raised in a cave on Mars with a blindfold and earplugs. Just as you can make the argument that there is such an obvious split in America on this issue that it deserves treatment homeopathy and holocaust denialism don’t, you can also make the argument that the “problem” is already readily taken care of in church, in the home, and in students who examine their understanding of evolution for themselves and decide to reject it- which, given the numbers, many already do. This is about a specific movement using the best weapons they have devised to try and hurry that process along, not any real lack of coverage of the controversy or of religious points of view. Religious points of view dominate outside the classroom, as there are many more religious believers than there are people who treat furthering their science education as a hobby. (And, of course, many people with a religious point of view are down and funky with both, but no one likes them, the spoilsports.)
But, let’s sweep all that aside and assume first that there is a legitimate scientific controversy and serious reasons to criticize “Darwinian evolution”, and that we’re dealing with a movement motivated purely by academic freedom and diversity of ideas. Let’s pretend that Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins were fighting about whether or not evolution exists, rather than the basketful of controversies within evolution that they inevitably fell on opposite sides of, or the relationship between science and religion that they likewise fought over. Is there still a reason that “teaching the controversy” is a bad idea?
Yes, there is, the same reason punctuated equilibrium, neutral selection, “junk DNA”, and other genuine controversies within biology aren’t taught: secondary school students haven’t yet had near the education required to understand them.
Isn’t that what the teacher’s for? To guide them through unfamiliar waters and teach just the basics of the controversy? Well, no. A teacher can only get students to understand as much about the material as they are capable of grasping, and what they’re capable of grasping depends as much on the human learning process as it does on their intelligence and the skill of the teacher. Perhaps no one is more familiar with this limitation than history teachers, as it is the direct cause of complaints by ten-year-olds throughout the span of education that history is an inherently boring subject. This is because, when you’re ten, unless you were raised in a history department, it IS.
“Kings and dates and battles” is the popular, disparaging formulation of “traditional” history education: walking the students through memorizing the names of people of no relevance to the student other than the demands of the teacher, memorizing the dates things not important to the student occurred, and memorizing big military clashes that are likewise impossible for them to fully connect with. The tyranny of dry fact, if you will. Up to an extent, this can be compensated for with a teacher that has a lively delivery and good performance skills- and the regular small doses of facts which may not be all that relevant to history, but WILL actually interest the students- but when it comes to test day, the questions won’t be about the nuances of the performance or the juicy details included to get attention, they’ll be mostly… kings and dates and battles. Their names, their place in time, some demonstration of understanding of their significance, depending on the grade level.
The imagined solution to this problem- not to mention the problem of getting some diversity into the endless parade of Dead White Males- is to teach history “in context”. The problem with this otherwise laudable idea- who wouldn’t want students to be more interested in history, and minority students to feel less alienated by it?- is that there is no such thing as context until you’ve accumulated a sufficient number of boring facts, only its illusion. Proposing to teach a child context first- or fascinating context hand in hand with the kings and dates and battles every step of the way- is like trying to draw a zebra on a blank sheet of white paper by starting with the spaces between the stripes.