Scientists Debate Claims Of Afrocentric Teachings

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CHICAGO--An attempt to lay the groundwork for a multicultural approach to precollegiate science instruction gave way to a hot debate here over whether a widely adopted "Afro-centric" science-curriculum document actually espouses "pseudoscience."

A panel discussion organized by Bernard Ortiz de Montellano, an anthropologist at Wayne State University, for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science was designed to demonstrate how African, Hispanic, and Native American influences could be infused into conventional science teaching without displacing accepted scientific truths.

Participants argued that for a variety of reasons--ranging from the need to reverse a historical bias against minorities in the sciences to the changing nature of the American workforce-science should reflect the contributions of people of color, both in the ancient and the modern world.

"The unspoken assumption is that [minority students] are anti-scientific or, at best, ascientific," Mr. Ortiz de Montellano said. "We're wasting enormous amounts of brain power."

Afro-centric 'Pseudoscience'?

But Mr. Ortiz de Montellano's critique of the "pseudoscience" he alleges is infused into the "baseline essay" for science developed in 1989 for the Portland, Ore., public schools, and adopted by a number of urban school districts nationwide, sparked a heated exchange.

The essay, which was written by Hunter H. Adams 3d, an employee of the Lifeways Sciences Institute in Chicago, delineates Egyptian contributions to astronomy and other sciences, many of which are acknowledged, if sometimes overlooked, by Western science. It also discusses the important contributions of prominent African-American scientists.

But, according to Mr. Ortiz de Montellano, the essay also contains much dubious information, including assertions that the Egyptians built and used gliders as a means of transport and possessed telekinetic powers.

The essay also claims that "for the ancient Egyptians, as well as contemporary Africans, there is no distinction and thus no separation between science and religion."

Mr. Ortiz de Montellano conceded that the baseline essays are not designed to be used as curriculum, but as reference materials for teachers to use in infusing multicultural material into science classes.

He argued, however, that their effect on teachers, who often cannot verify their contents through original research, could be harmful.

"As it is now, [the information] cannot be used by teachers [to] teach science," he asserted.

Supporters of Mr. Adams, led by Carl Spight, a physicist and the director of scientific research for the Chicago office of Jackson & Tull, a civil- and aerospace-engineering firm, immediately took issue with the critique, arguing that the A.A.A.S. had supported an "invidious" attack on Mr. Hunter.

"You know what I think the purpose of this panel was?" asked Mr. Spight, a principal reviewer of the essay. "I think it was to attack the science materials in the Portland essays."

He added that "you're hearing a white nationalist exposition of [the history] of science."

Overlooked Contributions

Efforts to infuse traditional curricula with viewpoints of minority groups have been under way for some time nationwide and have met with varying degrees of success and criticism. Generally, however, the controversy has centered on such relatively subjective topics as history and the humanities.

Science teaching, on the other hand, traditionally has been viewed as a means of communicating an objective body of empirical knowledge, relatively free of cultural bias.

But panelists pointed out that science courses generally ignore mathematical, mineralogical, astronomical, and botanical discoveries made by African and Hispanic cultures before they encountered Europeans.

Jocelyn T. Whiten, an AfricanAmerican researcher with the Center for Addiction Research & Prevention at the King-Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles, said that the trade patterns of ancient Africa afford a "wealth" of botanical and other material to enrich the science curriculum.

And Diana 1. Mannez, a researcher in the biochemistry department at the University of Michigan, argued that Indian astronomy concepts and New World agricultural and nutritional techniques could also enhance science teaching.

"There is a lot of material out there to infuse into the science curriculum," she said. "The problem is that it is not out there in a form that you can [readily] use in the classroom."

The Portland baseline essays, written by black academics in science and other areas, were designed, in part, to counter those failings.

Mr. Ortiz de Montellano is just one of a number of critics--including Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers----to argue that the essays are flawed.

Writing in the most recent issue of Creation/Evolution, the journal of the National Center for Science Education, Mr. Ortiz de Montellano argues that portions of the essay are similar to the "research" cited by creationists to support the Biblical account of creation.

"An Afrocentric creation myth is being introduced that is based in psuedoscience and which shares many attributes with 'scientific' creationism," he writes.

Mr. Spight distributed a rebuttal by Mr. Adams during the session.

In his paper, Mr. Adams argues that "this process of investigation called science is not value-neutral, nor is it culturally independent."

He added that Mr. Ortiz de Montellano "still believes the myth that value neutrality and objectivity are the inherent and defining features of science."

Vol. 11, Issue 22, Page 10

Published in Print: February 19, 1992, as Scientists Debate Claims Of Afrocentric Teachings
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