Letters To The Editor
Since my retirement in 1975, I have been substitute teaching part time in the Baltimore City and County public schools in mathematics, science, and related subjects.
Recently, I discovered that most students do not know how to whisper. I show them how and they love it, think it's fun, and cooperate fully. The noise level drops many decibels. The discipline problem in the classes I teach has faded accordingly! I think you ought to know about this.
Colonel J. Victor Stout Baltimore, Md.
P.S. Where can I write Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell about this?
Editor's note: Secretary Bell's address is U.S. Education Department, 400 Maryland Ave., S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.
If you live in a society in which Jane Fonda is accepted as an authority on foreign affairs, Jerry Falwell on theology, Roger Staubach on stomach distress, and President Reagan on the causes of air pollution (remember his statement that trees cause pollution?), then it's not too surprising that school superintendents consider themselves experts on sophisticated scientific theories such as evolution ("Creation v. Evolution: A Philosophical Struggle," letter to the editor by Henry McBride, superintendent of the Slater, Mo., schools, and "The Theory of Evolution Is Still Only a Theory," letter by Don L. Danielson, superintendent of the Gonvick-Trail, Minn., Community School, Education Week, April 18, 1984).
One of the major purposes of schools is presumably to teach students how to make true statements about reality. On that score, we have been failing the American public on a number of crucial fronts. The statements by Superintendents McBride and Danielson on evolution may help explain why.
For some 20 years now, my research has been concerned with how teachers and teacher candidates assert their beliefs in and out of the classroom, how they make what they perceive to be true statements, how they recognize the rejected false statements, how they make "I don't know" statements, and how they make appropriate statements about the unknowable. I am sorry to report that my research shows that making rational and responsible statements about one's beliefs is an art that few have mastered, and that teachers do not do much better than the general public.
How should a person who wishes to lay claim to the title "educated" assert his or her beliefs in an area in which he or she is not an expert, a field so complex that only those who have spent a lifetime in its investigation can make informed comments? After all, perusing a Reader's Digest article during lunch hour or reading a fundamentalist tract on the matter does not really qualify one to make responsible statements; nor does listening to a brilliant presentation on evolution by a creationist spokesman scoring debating points.
To be honest in determining the truth about a controversial issue, you should openly admit any a priori convictions you possess before beginning the inquiry. If you are initially pro-evolution or pro-creationism, say so publicly. If you have little knowledge about the issue, confess it.
Among the teacher candidates I have tested who favored creationism, not a single one had read a page of Darwin; not a single one could cite a scientific writer other than Darwin who is associated with the theory of evolution; and not a single one could cite a scientific article of any type that they had read concerning evolution. Less than 5 percent could even name any of the scientific disciplines normally associated with the study of evolution, let alone display an educated layman's understanding of these disciplines.
Unfortunately, all their ignorance in the matter apparently did not convince any of them to hold their views on evolution tentatively. On the contrary, those who favored teaching creationism in the schools held their views dogmatically and gave every indication of being beyond rational persuasion.
Since most of us are not experts on cancer cures, diet strategies, or evolution, we must, unless we are prepared to undertake serious and long-term investigations of our own, reject the maverick physician who peddles Laetrile as a cancer cure, the doctor who writes popular books claiming to melt away fat with three pills a day, and Gish's legions who claim creationism is a science.
(According to sworn testimony at the Arkansas trial in which the teaching of creationism in the schools was declared unconstitutional, not a single properly designed scientific article has ever been submitted for publication by a creationist to a recognized refereed scientific journal.)
It is just simple common sense to accept expert opinions on these matters--not because the majority of experts is always right, but given our own inadequate knowledge in these matters, the odds favor majority expert opinion, especially when you have such overwhelming, around-the-world, cross-cultural support of evolution by a majority of scientists.
As the Harper Dictionary of Modern Thought puts it: "Evolutionary theory permeates and supports every branch of biological science, much as the notion of the roundness of the earth underlies all geodesy and all cosmological theories on which the shape of the earth has a bearing. Thus anti-evolutionism is of the same stature as flat-earthism."
Though most educated lay people cannot effectively probe the specific scientific areas associated with evolution and determine their truths, they can fairly easily explore the historical evidence surrounding the controversy. For instance, though every major naturalist in America was a creationist before Darwin wrote his seminal work, just 20 years after the work was published, America had only two major naturalists left who still believed in the creationist model.
The history of new disciplines created since the time of Darwin's works is even more startling. There is almost no theory in the history of science that has had such massive evidence supported by the appearance of new and unknown disciplines of the theory. For instance, the fossil record was almost bare when Darwin proposed his theory--the science of physical anthropology was in its infancy. Now the fossil record, with millions of specimens available, gives massive support for the main outlines of the theory.
In short, the only legitimate course for those who want to lay claim to the title "educated" and who wish to make responsible statements about evolutionary theory is to take this massive evidence into account and reject evolution only on the appearance of equally valid counterevidence. To the extent that they don't do so, they must be labeled miseducators. I am afraid that Mr. McBride and Mr. Danielson must be put into that category, as must the entire creationist movement.
Robert Primack Editor Foundations Monthly Newsletter College of Education University of Florida Gainesville, Fla.