Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Monkeying Around

By Debbie Gilbert

MAY 26, 1998:  According to the Memphis City Schools’ curriculum guidelines, it’s okay for students to graduate without understanding the concept of evolution.

This is precisely the situation the National Academy of Sciences tried to address in April when it published a new guidebook, Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science. The NAS felt such a document was necessary because many teachers are steering clear of the topic of evolution, perceiving it as controversial. In some parts of the country, teachers may be under pressure from fundamentalists not to teach the subject.

Why is this considered important? If a child is taught every other aspect of biology, does it matter if evolution is left out?

Yes, say the scientists and educators who prepared the NAS report. Evolution is the central organizing principle of biology, and knowledge of how it works is essential to understanding the relationships between living things. As for the widely held assumption that evolution remains unproven, the NAS responds: “There is no debate within the scientific community over whether evolution occurred, and there is no evidence that it has not occurred. Some of the details of how evolution occurs are still being investigated. But scientists continue to debate only the particular mechanisms” of the process, not the overall theory.

It’s the word “theory” that misleads people. In common usage, a theory is a guess or hunch. In scientific parlance, it refers to an explanation that has been thoroughly substantiated by observation. Because it is based on an overwhelming accumulation of evidence, evolutionary theory is not something to be believed or disbelieved. It simply exists.

But things haven’t changed much since attorney Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolution in a Tennessee school; today, most people still lack any real understanding of evolution. Polls show fewer than one-half of American adults believe that humans evolved from earlier life forms, and more than one-half say they’d like to see creationism taught in the public schools (despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1987 ruling that this would violate the First Amendment’s separation of church and state).

Photo by Illustration From Teaching About Evolution and the Nature of Science National Academy of Sciences)
What are kids being taught in Memphis? The Flyer examined the most widely used science textbooks in the Memphis City Schools for grades 1 through 12, and found the books to be generally excellent. In the early grades, students learn about species extinction (using the ever-popular dinosaurs as examples) but not the origin of species. That concept is introduced in grades 6 and 7. There is no mention of creationism.

The high-school texts are much more explicit. BIOLOGY: Visualizing Life states that “the theory of evolution by natural selection is so broadly supported by evidence that biologists accept it with as much certainty as they do the theory of gravity.” The textbook used in advanced-placement biology classes is even more to the point: “Recently creationism has renewed its attempt to invade public education, under the guise that it is just another scientific theory, and as such merits equal time. Actually, the term ‘scientific creationism’ is an oxymoron; ‘creation’ in a biblical or divine sense cannot be examined or explained scientifically.”

Seems clear enough. But here’s the catch: Teachers are not obligated to teach every word of the textbook – or any of it, if they choose.

“The text is simply a resource for the curriculum guide,” says Dr. Ronald Cleminson, who teaches science education at the University of Memphis. “The Memphis City Schools guide is very broad now, not as specific as those we’ve had in the past.”

The current manual, in use for the past year or so, is called Framework for Standards-Based Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. One of its avowed purposes is to “state the essential knowledge and skills which students must attain as a result of their education in the Memphis City Schools.”

Earnestine Matthews, coordinator for student standards, explains how the document came about: “Back in 1993, citizens from all walks of life met to discuss ‘Lifelong Learning Standards’ – things they felt all students should know to be productive citizens. Then teachers and administrators met to discuss content standards in seven different areas. We formed what we call a blue-ribbon panel of community leaders to review the standards.”

“We looked at standards from the National Academy of Sciences, and the state standards,” says MCS science facilitator Quincy Hathorn. “A panel of experts reviewed the draft.” (Hathorn defines an expert as “someone with credibility on a national or regional level.”)

The guide lays out “Specific Expectations” for each subject area, couched in educational jargon so vague that schools have almost unlimited latitude for interpretation. It then gives “Performance Indicators,” naming some concepts that students should know. In science, these include such ideas as photosynthesis, Newton’s laws of motion, weather patterns, and the structure of genes. Evolution is not mentioned anywhere, either by name or by some phrase such as “the development of species over time.”

When asked about this omission, Hathorn points to Standard #3, which reads: “Students should be able to use knowledge of the similarities, differences, and interdependence of living things to analyze and assess events and actions that impact life on Earth.” This, to Memphis City Schools, is the same thing as evolution.

Why the apparent squeamishness over using the word “evolution”? “Our panel chose to approach the concept of interdependence and the unity of living things,” says Hathorn.

Under the new MCS policy of site-based management, each school writes its own curriculum, using the Framework as a guide. This could mean that in some schools, students receive a firm grounding in evolutionary theory, while in others, the topic doesn’t even come up.

Here’s another Performance Indicator that the Framework says high-school students should master: “Analyzing the influence of prevailing contemporary thought in various arenas (politics, religion, education) on the acceptance of new concepts, inventions, and innovations in science and technology.”

This statement makes it appear that ethical discussions of new discoveries are encouraged. Yet the factual basis of Darwin’s discovery, by its omission, could be considered not worth exploring.

“We think that into the 21st century, just having a grasp of scientific knowledge is not enough,” says Hathorn. “Not all issues are scientific in nature – a lot are political and social. There are some issues in biology that may be religious in nature.”

Certainly, putting science into a cultural context is a good way to promote analytical thinking. But without first having a solid comprehension of the scientific facts, kids won’t be able to discuss biological concepts in any meaningful way.

Weekly Wire Suggested Links

Page Back Last Issue Current Issue Next Issue Page Forward

News & Opinion: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Cover . News . Film . Music . Arts . Books . Comics

Weekly Wire    © 1995-99 DesertNet, LLC . Memphis Flyer . Info Booth . Powered by Dispatch