The extinction of education

By chance I discovered recently that my old Grammar School zoology teacher, Tony, is living not too far from me. Though he used to be called “Sir”. I’m tossing around whether to contact him after 43 years, remembering those old bumper stickers, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” I have reason to be very thankful to him and his colleague Des (also called “Sir”), who were responsible for getting me to Cambridge and enabling my career in medicine. And additionally, to any understanding I may have of the biological issues raised by evolution.

How coincidental, then, that at the same time various British luminaries should be petitioning the government about the terrible sitution in British schools, where secondary age kids are all being indoctrinated in Young Earth ID Creationism and some five year olds have not yet been taught the rudiments of the faith Neodarwinist truth. If the petition is to be believed, that is, and it must be true because it’s about science.

For those not in the UK, this is the text of the petition:

Creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories, but they are portrayed as scientific theories by some religious fundamentalists who attempt to have their views promoted in publicly-funded schools. At the same time, an understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology. Currently, the study of evolution does not feature explicitly in the National Curriculum until year 10 (ages 14-15). Free Schools and Academies are not obliged to teach the National Curriculum and so are under no obligation to teach about evolution at all. We petition the Government to make clear that creationism and ‘intelligent design’ are not scientific theories and to prevent them from being taught as such in publicly-funded schools, including in ‘faith’ schools, religious Academies and religious Free Schools. At the same time, we want the Government to make the teaching of evolution in mandatory in all publicly-funded schools, at both primary and secondary level.

A more sadly deceitful rant I can’t really imagine; the conflation of creationism with ID, the denigration of ID as unscientific when so many scientific papers consider it scientific enough to debate, the emotive (and false) use of the “F” word, the fabrication of some imaginary plot to undermine the teaching of science in schools here as if it were the US Bible Belt… it just sounds a bit desperate to me, as if science were a beleaguered house of cards in danger of collapsing as soon as Mr Jimpson the nutty Pentecostal biology master dares to mention Noah’s ark when he covers the Mesozoic.

As I pointed out in my last post 29 kids out of 30 in a typical British classroom effectively haven’t heard of God, so it’s hard to imagine them lurching into Biblical literalism in a hurry. And, incidentally, despite the petition’s 2nd sentence, I maintain that I could have pursued my lifetime career in medicine without knowing one jot about evolutionary theory. In fact, I forgot most of what I ever knew because it just wasn’t relevant. The whole petition is, in my view, simply promoting intellectual fascism. Or at least, importing it across the Atlantic.

But another perspective comes from my memories of A level zoology. As it happens, I was on the committee of the school Christian Union during my course. I’m not aware that studying evolution (with which I’d been familiar in principle since the age of five) caused me any religious problems at all, or even prompted a single question from me in lessons. But if I’d been a bright Christian teenager now, I might well have read something by Behe or Meyer, or even stumbled across Wikipedia articles by “dissenting brethren” within the mainstream biological community.

So, maybe I’d have asked Tony whether the evidence for abiogenesis was really watertight, or how he’d respond to the suggestion that functional information was unlikely to arise by random point mutation. And I am sure (though maybe I’ll try and make contact and actually ask him) that he’d take the enquiry seriously and use it, at least, to teach beyond the textbook over-simplifications. He’d borrow my books and critique them. He might even admit that I had a point, but should not raise it in my exam answers, except perhaps at Scholarship Level where original, well-argued, thought would increase my grade (as indeed it did). But, whilst my memories may be over-rosy, he would not tell me that I must stop reading pseudo-science or that he knew I was a Fundamentalist and would never get anywhere in science.

And that’s because Tony was a damned good teacher, and not just a TV naturalist or a polemicist for atheism, like some one could name. He taught me to think, rather than toe a party-line.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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4 Responses to The extinction of education

  1. Gregory says:

    “The whole petition is, in my view, simply promoting intellectual fascism. Or at least, importing it across the Atlantic.” – Jon

    Yes, there does seem to be a fair amount of collusion amongst the NCSE-types, even across the Atlantic on the topic of ‘evolution,’ which must be defended, seemingly out of all proportion to reality.

    In that vein, folks who are focussed on ‘science and religion’ (e.g. Faraday Institute, CIS, ASA as well as BioLogos, ID, NSCE, etc.) to the exclusion or ignorance of philosophy, usually get stuck on ideology, not on science.

    Notice it is ‘evolution-as-science’ versus ‘creation-ism’ as ideology and ‘intelligent design’ as pseudo-science in their tilted approach? These people seem to have as hard a time speaking about ‘evolution-ISM’ as they do admitting *any* errors in Darwin’s intellectual approach to biology, botany, geology and other natural sciences (e.g. non-humanitarian nature-only psychology). Post-Darwinian is not allowed to mean anything to them, so they rail against it; as if Darwin’s British genius is the ultimate fulcrum around which Anglo-American ideas rotate.

    “an understanding of evolution is central to understanding all aspects of biology.” – petition

    *All* aspects? Is this the ‘everything in the light of evolution’ biological approach? I’m not a biologist and have little biological knowledge, but *all* seems like an exaggeration, given the different methods and theories in laboratory, field, simulations ‘inside’ of biology. Don’t some areas of biology require ‘non-evolutionary’ and/or ‘non-Darwinian’ approaches?

  2. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    Hi Gregory
    I’ve got an idea – what about insisting that scientism and evolutionism are taught in schools as part of the religious/philosophical curriculum? Then they can have the science field all to themselves, but know that their metaphysical presuppositions are understood by the kids from the start. Instead of kids saying Genesis disagrees with evolution, they’ll be asking why teacher lets his philosophy overrule his science.

  3. Gregory says:

    Hello Jon,

    Yes, that would be a helpful alternative. Though I wonder how much religious/philosophical curriculum currently exists in British classrooms.

    One surprising feature of the petition – it is signed by Michael Reiss, who was involved in that Royal Society fiasco re: creationism a couple of years ago. The involvement of Anglican clergy ‘taking the side of Darwin,’ and apparently not just his natural science, but also his ideological naturalism, sure complicates things!

    Rev. Reiss wants evolution taught in elementary school science classes, though I’ve not read anything about how or if he promotes philosophy/religious studies at that same level. I wonder what he would say about teaching those same level students to identify the ideologies of scientism and evolutionism, which are both quite obviously rampant in the U.K. also, while at the same time improving their (biological) science curricula?

  4. Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

    I’m afraid you’ve sussed it – you’ve not been allowed to teach religion as religion for years here. Comparative religion – whether you get married in face-paint or white, praying towards Mecca or from the liturgy. But teaching about faith commitment is as foreign to religious studies as to science, so I can’t see a likelihood of any critical comparison of theistic and naturalistic worldviews happening.

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