Squaring the Circle

La lutte continue, as the saying goes – the struggle continues. Education can be a slow process, and as we’ve seen in the US lately, it can turn around and march smartly backwards. People can make resolute, determined efforts to become more ignorant than their parents, and to make their children more ignorant than they are themselves. People can also make resolute efforts to have it both ways – to live on technology and the safety and comfort it brings, while at the same time scorning the rational ways of thinking that technology depends on. There’s something a little contemptible about that – but so it goes.

James Colbert has been on the frontline of America’s culture wars for 20 years but his hoped-for final victory of reason over faith is not yet in sight. Now an associate biology professor at Iowa State University, he has found since he started teaching that about a third of the students beginning his introductory course are creationists, in many cases with no knowledge of evolution at all.

That’s students at university level, in a country which has laws about mandatory education for all children through the age of sixteen – yet a lot of them manage to slip through with no knowledge of evolution at all. Because education can go backwards.

While trying to tread softly to avoid offending their sensibilities, he has increasingly had to defend his faculty and scholarship against what he sees as a far greater threat – the incursion into science faculties of backers of “intelligent design”, the belief that evolution is so complex that some higher force must be behind it.

That’s a threat? Science faculties being infiltrated by ‘backers’ of unscience? Of nonscience, of antiscience? Gosh, how could that be a threat?

Prof Colbert says most scientists ignored such arguments as coming from a lunatic fringe until August when President George W Bush backed teaching i.d. alongside evolution. Alarmed at what he saw as the growing influence of some i.d. supporters in the science faculty, Prof Colbert drafted a petition condemning “attempts to represent intelligent design as a scientific endeavour”. In response more than 40 Christian faculty and staff members signed a statement calling on the university to uphold their basic freedoms and to allow them to discuss intelligent design.

‘Calling on the university to uphold their basic freedoms’ – meaning what? Their basic freedom to teach nonsense? Is that a basic freedom, and is it a basic freedom that they have? Does a French teacher have a basic freedom to teach a mixture of Farsi, Tagalog and gibberish and call it ‘French’? Does a history teacher have a basic freedom to teach that Hitler fought the battle of Trafalgar in 1217 and thereby won the freedom of Papua New Guinea? Does an engineering teacher have a basic freedom to teach that precision really isn’t all that important when it comes to bridge building, lighten up a little? Do teachers have a basic freedom to teach any old balderdash to their captive students? I would have thought they didn’t. And then, there is surely a difference between ‘discussing’ intelligent design and claiming that it is a scientific endeavour, and there is also a difference between condemning something and forcibly removing someone’s freedom to do it. In short, the Christian faculty and staff members seem to be resorting to the much too familiar tactic of claiming to be oppressed and repressed and unfairly treated.

But – we keep endlessly circling back to this – education is education. It’s not education if it traffics in falsehoods, it’s something else. Educators don’t have a ‘basic freedom’ to teach any old fool thing they feel like teaching. They have academic freedom, yes, but it’s not infinite or absolute – it doesn’t cover outright raving. Once a teacher starts dribbling and talking to phantoms, the issue of freedom is overtaken by the issue of competence. Or at least it should be.

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