Going Soft in the Head

My friend Garth wrote yesterday about his distress at a study from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that more than a third of high school students believe the First Amendment goes too far in safeguarding our freedoms of expression, the press, religion, assembly, and to petition the government for redress of our grievances (good luck with that last one).

In a way, it’s old news that a lot of Americans don’t hold with the fundamental freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. But Garth speculates about the trend:

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the growing anti-intellectualism in the context of the voting majority, but I hadn’t realized that it had infected children’s minds as well. I guess it only makes sense that fundamental misunderstandings about our government would be passed on. My worry is that this is only a trend that will worsen over time as these teenagers grow up, and that our government will be quickly taken over by those who would seek to exploit that ignorance, as opposed to fighting it.”

I think he’s right on about the current of anti-intellectualism and the trouble it’s bringing. A more disturbing piece of evidence is presented in a New York Times story today about how many science teachers are avoiding explicit discussion of evolution in their classrooms to avoid controversy.

” ‘The most common remark I’ve heard from teachers was that the chapter on evolution was assigned as reading but that virtually no discussion in class was taken,’ said Dr. John R. Christy, a climatologist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, an evangelical Christian and a member of Alabama’s curriculum review board who advocates the teaching of evolution. Teachers are afraid to raise the issue, he said in an e-mail message, and they are afraid to discuss the issue in public.”

And the reason teachers are fearful of talking about evolution is that, Dr. Christy aside, conservative Christians are waging a war against it because the idea doesn’t pass muster with their interpretation of the Bible. You sort of expect that the anti-evolutionists, who are free under the First Amendment to propound any hare-brained ideas as the word of their god, are the same people who feel most strongly that the First Amendment goes too far.

Fighting Evolutionary Terrorism

Link: Salon.com News | The new Monkey Trial.

Salon (subscription, unfortunately, required) has a superb long review on the political advances that anti-evolution forces have made in public schools across the country. The piece focuses on the struggle in a Pennsylvania school district over the school board’s decision last year to order the teaching of “intelligent design” in high school biology classes. ID, as proponents call it, is calculated to undermine the teaching of evolutionary biology by pointing to cases that evolution (or physics) has a tough time explaining, thus suggesting that a higher creative intelligence was involved (guess whose?). ID is largely designed to get the Bible’s take on creation into science classes without overstepping the constitutional ban on teaching religion in public schools.

The Salon story contains one breathtaking quote from a state legislator in Missouri that says volumes about how extreme and cockeyed anti-evolutionary thinking can become:

“Speaking to the [New York] Times, state Rep. Cynthia Davis seemed to compare opponents of intelligent design to al-Qaida. ‘It’s like when the hijackers took over those four planes on Sept. 11 and took people to a place where they didn’t want to go,’ she said. ‘I think a lot of people feel that liberals have taken our country somewhere we don’t want to go. I think a lot more people realize this is our country and we’re going to take it back.’ ”

Oh, yeah — it’s just like that.

The reason orthodoxy of any stripe — religious, political, scientific — is not a good thing is that by definition it promotes rigid thinking and suppresses inquiry. The brand of Christian fundamentalism active in U.S. politics today is a menace because it insists on imposing the beliefs of many on all. But it doesn’t do for those whose world view is based on the fruits of the scientific method to laugh off the beliefs of others, either.

This is more a question of attitude than knowledge. I’m not suggesting that Judeo-Christian creationism be put on the same footing as science (if that kind of thing’s going to get into the classroom, I’m afraid I’ll have to insist on equal science-class time for the Norse creation story, the Navajo story, and the Celtic explanations for the world). But I do think those teaching science would be well-served by a sense of humility in approaching their task. Scientific knowledge is evolving. What comes to be regarded as established truth in one era — for instance, the origins and form of the universe, the nature and structure of matter, or our understanding of the processes that cause earthquakes (and trigger tsunamis) — can and often is unraveled by further inquiry.

The story should always carry a tagline: “To be continued.”