15 December 2008

Teaching rubbish doesn't help students think

Arnold Loewy has an opinion piece in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (which may well be the coolest name for a newspaper I have yet heard).

Although the name of the newspaper may be cool, the column is not.
Currently, a national debate is raging over whether or not to teach intelligent design in public schools.

I haven't seen much debate on that front since the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. I see a lot of people who want to attack the teaching of evolution, though.
To begin with, it is important to disabuse ourselves of the notion intelligent design is an alternative to, or the opposite of, evolution. The opposite of evolution is creationism, the theory that the Earth was created in six days, less than 6,000 years ago.

This is a peculiar opening gambit: to claim that some complex scientific idea has a necessary logical opposite. What's the opposite of germ theory? The opposite of atomic theory?

Be that as it may, there's a strange backhanded effort to claim that intelligent design is not an alternative to evolution. But that is expressly what it is meant to be.
The opposite of intelligent design is no intelligent design, or atheism. It is possible to believe that an intelligent designer designed evolution as many (I have been told, including Darwin) believe.

And here we have the classic wedge strategy: it's any religious belief you might happen to have, or evolution and godlessness. As always, this does a huge disservice to the wonderful variety of human beliefs.
Most of the objection to teaching intelligent design is predicated on the ground that the subject matter is religious, and should be taught only in church. I disagree. The characteristics of the intelligent designer are most assuredly a matter for religious training and belief. On the other hand, most religions posit the existence of an intelligent designer (usually denominated God), but do not seek to examine all of the scientific/philosophic evidence for or against that supposition. In short, they accept it on faith.

It's like he's destroying his own case. So... I think he's arguing that ID is religious... but that somehow that doesn't matter because...? I really don't understand the argument here.
While faith is everything in religion, it is not everything in schools. Every proposition has to be empirically examined to determine its validity. Thus, when intelligent design is examined in school, there is no a priori assumption of its correctness, or incorrectness. The evidence is examined and the chips can fall where they may.

But why teach discredited ideas in a school setting? Should we teach phlogiston theory?
The reason that I am so supportive of teaching intelligent design in public schools is because I studied essentially the intelligent design/no intelligent design debate in an English literature course at Boston University.

Stop! There is a huge difference between teaching something at a K-12 level and at the university level. What is perfectly appropriate for one level does not export well to all levels. Plus, the rules for universities are totally different than they are for K-12 public classrooms.
Frankly, this course of action is not risk-free for fundamentalists. Although I concluded that it was more likely than not that there was an intelligent designer, I suspect some of my classmates were not similarly persuaded. Consequently, if we do adopt the "teach the controversy" perspective that many fundamentalists are advocating in regard to intelligent design, there is a real risk that some percentage of the students will conclude that there is no intelligent designer, and hence no God.

For me, this is a risk worth taking.

That he characterizes this as a "risk" shows a lot going on here. Being religious is good. Not being religious is bad. So this clearly shows that proposing to teach intelligent design cannot be taught in K-12 public classrooms, for the same reason creationism can't be taught in classrooms: it is about using a public government institution to promote particular religious views.

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