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Intelligent Design Calls Itself Science

Cog at Abstract Factory on the Intelligent Design (ID) Controversy:

ID calls itself science. ID calls itself science. ID calls itself science. And therefore, ID must be judged by the criteria of science, not philosophy or theology.

And as science, ID is absolutely the pits. It is a fundamentally non-scientific argument that calls itself scientific (note my use of the the restrictive subordinating conjuction, “that”, instead of “which”). Therefore, it’s a contradiction in terms to say that ID is “valid” when considered nonscientifically.

I won’t rehash the intelligent design question, for pretty much the same reason Cog doesn’t do so. But ID raises a very important issue of teacher autonomy: how much autonomy should a teacher or school district allow a teacher over classroom material or manner of presentation?

High School English teachers frequently encounter this issue when they try to introduce external reading material into lessons. Sometimes, these teachers photocopy material themselves (even paying the costs). Public schools call for uniform standards. Inevitably that means oversight over reading material (and classroom content). Some might say that high school is not an appropriate level to grant this level of autonomy to a teacher. The choice of “Great Gatsby” as reading material may be arbitrary and unrepresentative (curriculum planners admit), but schools have to follow a standards-based approach (if only to make it easier to measure progress). Creative teachers like myself bristle; Gatsby again? What about more contemporary or controversial texts? What about online videos or TV shows? It’s not that teachers hate Great Gatsby per se; they resent not having the freedom to use texts of their own choosing to teach class.

I’m guessing that much of the ID controversy arises not from school districts imposing standards but maverick teachers trying to introduce their own individualized approach to the subject. Rationalists and scholars of the Daniel Dennett sort say that “teaching the controversy” is a kind of wimping out. Perhaps. But my personal style tends toward the provocative. I’m not for ID, but I could easily frame it in a classroom context so as to facilitate intelligent debate or investigation. Even a moderately competent teacher could use it to provoke student interest. Just off the top of my head, it could introduce students to standards of proof, interpretation of data and the misuses of science. Really, it all boils down to whether spending a period on it is a wise use of the students’ time.

The answer to this question is probably “No.” But I’m not a high school biology teacher. I don’t presume to know what methods are the most effective for covering material. When I was in high school, my government teacher held a classroom debate. Two sides had to debate the question: Communism is better than capitalism.”

Perhaps Cog would say that the empirical evidence favoring capitalist economies was so overwhelming that it made no sense to waste valuable class time on it. Yet when I was in high school in the early 1980’s, the Cold War was still going strong. People still worried about Soviet domination and the threat communist regimes posed. Yet this classroom discussion forced students to analyze important economic and political questions. How could someone actually believe that communism was working? Why would a communist criticize capitalism? How tied are the respective economic systems with the political systems? How would you evaluate the evidence supporting or opposing either position? Looking back, I realize the activity had enormous pedagogical value, no doubt the result of a gifted teacher willing to diverge from the assigned curriculum. I appreciate the fact that the school (a private one) gave the teacher the flexibility to employ such an activity into his class.

Teaching is hard. A teacher never really knows how much a student is absorbing, (if anything at all). Schools don’t have an easy job tracking whether students are learning or whether teachers are doing a good job. (One person once said that teachers are more valuable than surgeons because a surgeon can only endanger one patient at a time). Right now, public education monitors teacher quality through certification requirements, yearly reviews and test results. But fools can pass certification tests; teachers can be great even if their students’ test scores don’t shoot up. All principals know this. But they have to set uniform (albeit imperfect). standards.

Unfortunately, uniform standards often translate into uniform teaching methods (which strips teacher’s autonomy). We may all agree that teaching religious texts in a high school class is wrong, but if Frank Kermode (author of the Literary Guide to the Bible) were the teacher , that might turn out to be a really rewarding experience. It all boils down to teacher competence and trusting teachers to provide appropriate learning environments.

It’s one thing for school districts to mandate ID or “teach the controversy.” We can all agree it’s wrong. But ultimately I worry less about students having their heads filled with pseudo-religious theories than public schools preventing individual teachers from exposing students to unconventional teaching methods, enthusiasm or –heaven forbid–original thought.