I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).
When I heard that advocates of “Intelligent Design” were urging schools to "teach the controversy" between their view and Darwinian evolution, I was dismayed.
About 20 years ago, I coined the phrase “teach the controversy” when I argued that schools and colleges should respond to the then-emerging culture wars over education by bringing their disputes into academic courses themselves. Instead of assuming that we have to resolve debates over, say, whether Huckleberry Finn is a racist text or a stirring critique of racism, teachers should present students with the conflicting arguments and use the debate itself to arouse their interest in the life of the mind. I elaborated the argument in numerous essays and in a 1992 book, Beyond the Culture Wars, which is subtitled, How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.
So I felt as if my pocket had been picked when the Intelligent Design crowd appropriated my slogan, and even moreso when President Bush endorsed its proposal, saying that "both sides ought to be properly taught" so "people can understand what the debate is about." As a secular left-liberal, I felt that my ideas were being hijacked by the Christian Right as a thinly-veiled pretext for imposing their religious dogma on the schools.
And yet, setting intellectual property questions aside, the more I ponder the matter and read the commentators on both sides, the more I tend to think that a case can be made for teaching the controversy between ID and Darwin.
Not that the sides in this debate are equal, as Bush’s comment suggests. If we judge the issues strictly on their scientific merits, the Intelligent Designers don’t seem to have much of a case. In a lengthy and detailed article in The New Republic (August 22 & 29), the evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne persuasively shows that the supposed "flaws" in the theory of natural selection that IDers claim to point out simply don’t exist. H. Allen Orr had made a similarly persuasive refutation of ID in The New Yorker (May 30), and these arguments have been further reinforced in articles by Daniel C. Dennett in The New York Times (August 28) and by Coyne again and Richard Dawkins in The Guardian (September 1).
Taken together, these writers make an overwhelming case that Darwinian evolution, if not a total certainty, is as certain as any scientific hypothesis can be. As Coyne puts it, "it makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity." From a strictly scientific standpoint, there seems to be no real "controversy" here that's worth teaching, just a bogus one that the IDers have fabricated to paper over the absence of evidence in their critique of evolutionary science.
And this would indeed be the end of the story if the truth or validity of an idea were the sole thing to consider in deciding whether it is worth presenting to students. But when we measure the pedagogical merits of an idea, its usefulness in clarifying an issue or provoking students -- and teachers -- to think can be as important as its truth or validity. In some cases even false or dubious notions can have heuristic value.
This point has been grasped by several commentators unconnected with the Christian Right who defend the teaching of the controversy. In a column of June 2000, before ID had become prominent in the news, Richard Rothstein, then The New York Times education columnist, proposed that students be exposed to the debate between creationism and evolution. And in a piece on the controversy earlier this year in Slate, Christopher Hitchens, asks, “Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of 'intelligent design.'"
Hitchens’ argument has been challenged by the editors of The New Republic, who caustically retort that getting kids to weigh and balance evidence is not exactly “what Bush -- or IDers -- want at all.” What they want "instead is to teach ID as a substantive scientific argument. If anything, what Bush is calling for is anti-historical, the exact opposite of what Hitchens praises." This is true, but so what? Hitchens doesn’t claim that his argument is one the IDers themselves would make, but only that students would learn something important about how to think from the kind of debate the IDers propose.
Secular liberals will object that Hitchens is overly confident that the good guys would win if the debate were aired in schools. In his scenario, the students would see the "idiocy" of ID’s ancestors and also presumably of its current advocates. What secular liberals fear, however, is that in many classrooms the scientific truth would be overwhelmed by dogma and prejudice.
Behind such fear -- and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate -- one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating "values" with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.
Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists -- maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.
Seen this way, the anti-evolution assaults of the Intelligent Designers and the creationist Right could be viewed less as a threat than an opportunity. This moral is suggested by a recent news story in The New York Times that reports that museum staffs that are being challenged by religious patrons to explain why they should believe in evolution “are brushing up on their Darwin and thinking on their feet” (September 20, 2005). One museum has developed training sessions for staff members “on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.”
What is most interesting in the article, and most germane to the recent debate, is the suggestion, reflected in quoted statements by museum people, that though this religious rejection of science may be misguided, it needs to be listened to and answered rather than ignored or dismissed, and that being forced to defend evolution can actually be a good thing. The implication is that it’s not unreasonable for patrons to press museum people to explain the grounds on which evolutionary science is more credible than ID or creationism. As one director of a paleontological research institution puts it, "Just telling" such patrons "they are wrong is not going to be effective." As another museum staffer advises docents, "it's your job not to slam the door in the face of a believer," and another says, "your job is ... to explain your point of view, but respect theirs."
Arguably, this is precisely the job of teachers as well, though admittedly museums serve different functions than educational institutions. If the goal of education is to get students to think, then just telling students their doubts about Darwin are wrong is not going to be effective. And teachers being forced to engage their religious critics and explain why they believe in evolution might be a healthy thing for those teachers just as it seems to be for museum workers. In fact, I would like to ask Coyne, Dennett, Orr, and others who have written so cogently in defense of evolution if they don’t feel just a tiny bit grateful to the IDers for pushing them to think harder about -- and explain to a wider audience -- how they know what they know about evolution.
Scientists like Coyne and Dawkins concede that debate should indeed be central to science instruction, but they hold that such debate should be between accredited hypotheses within science, not between scientists and creationist poseurs. That's hard to dispute, but, like Rothstein and Hitchens, I can at least imagine a classroom debate between creationism and evolution that might be just the thing to wake up the many students who now snooze through science courses. Such students might come away from such a debate with a sharper understanding of the grounds on which established science rests, something that even science majors and advanced graduate students now don’t often get from conventional science instruction.
How might such a debate be taught? Ideally in a way that would not become fixated on the clash of faith and science, which might quickly produce an unedifying stalemate, but would open out into broader matters such as the history of conflicts between science and religion and the question of how we determine when something qualifies as "science." At the broadest level, the discussion could address whether the ID-evolution debate is a smoke screen for the larger political and cultural conflict between Red and Blue states. Representing such a many-sided debate would demand the collaboration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, a collaboration that could make a now disconnected curriculum more coherent. Such a collaboration would also answer the scientists’ objection that there just isn’t time to debate these issues, given everything else they have to cover. Then, too, explaining how we know what we know against skeptical questioning is not an add-on, but an intrinsic part of teaching any subject.
In any case, science instructors may soon have no choice but to address the controversy posed by ID and creationism. If many American students now bring faith-based skepticism about evolution with them into classrooms, as it seems they do, then there’s a sense in which the controversy has already penetrated the classroom, just as it has penetrated museums, whether ID or creationism is formally represented in the syllabus or not. Schools and colleges may not be teaching the controversy between faith and science, but it’s there in the classroom anyway insofar as it’s on some students’ minds. Teachers can act as if their students’ doubts about evolution don’t exist, but pretending that your students share your beliefs when you know they don’t is a notorious prescription for bad teaching.
Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (W. W. Norton, 1992) and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2003).
The endless debate over the teaching of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has now moved from the high schools to the universities. In this debate, the advocates of “intelligent design theory” say that this should be taught as a scientific alternative to Darwin’s theory. It’s time to consider radical ideas for resolving this dispute.
I have a proposal. Why not introduce our students to this debate by having them read Darwin’s own writings in their biology classes? We could teach the controversy by teaching Darwin.
I suspect, however, that this proposal will be rejected by almost everyone in this debate, because both sides -- the proponents as well as the critics of evolution -- have a deep fear of teaching Darwin.
“Intelligent design theory” is the idea that some of what we see in the living world shows the kind of specified complexity that must be the product of an intelligent designer rather than Darwinian evolution. Proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute (a conservative think tank in Seattle) have adopted the rhetorical argument of “teaching the controversy.” They recommend teaching the theory of evolution by natural selection along with intelligent design theory, so that students are fully informed about all sides of this debate.
Opponents respond by saying, what controversy? Although there might be some controversy over the exact mechanisms of evolutionary change, they say, there is no real scientific controversy over the general theory of the origin of species by natural evolution. The supporters of intelligent design theory are moved not by scientific motives but by religious motives. And after all, intelligent design theory is not really a scientific theory, because it appeals to supernatural causes beyond natural experience and the scientific method.
I agree that the scientific evidence and arguments favor Darwinian evolution over intelligent design. In debating some of the leaders in the intelligent design movement such as Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Jonathan Wells, I have seen that they rely on the rhetorical technique of negative argumentation. They appear to win the debate when they ask the Darwinian scientists to demonstrate the exact step-by-step evolutionary pathways for the emergence of living mechanisms that show apparent design. And yet they offer no positive theory of their own to explain exactly where, when, and how the Intelligent Designer created these same living mechanisms. Without such a positive theory, their position is not empirically testable.
Despite these fundamental weaknesses in the intelligent design position, I cannot see that there would be anything wrong with having students weigh the evidence and arguments for themselves by reading selections from Darwin’s own writings -- particularly, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man. Surely, the proponents of evolution couldn’t object to having students read Charles Darwin. And yet this could also satisfy the proponents of intelligent design, because Darwin presents intelligent design theory, which he calls the “theory of creation,” as the major alternative to his theory.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin frames the fundamental debate as a controversy between two theories -- the “theory of creation” (or the “theory of independent acts of creation”) versus the “theory of natural selection” (or the “theory of descent with modification”). He indicates that until recently “most naturalists” -- including himself -- have accepted the “theory of creation,” which says that each species has been independently created by a Creator. But Darwin thinks that now we have a better theory -- a “theory of natural selection,” which says that although the general laws of nature might have been ultimately created by a Creator, those general laws allow for the natural evolution of species through natural selection of inherited variations. Consequently, there is no need for special interventions by a Creator to design each species and each complex organic mechanism.
Darwin thinks that neither theory can be conclusively demonstrated. But we can at least judge one theory as more probable if it can explain “large classes of facts” more intelligibly than the other theory. For example, if the “theory of natural selection” can explain the geographic distribution of species between the Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland and do this more persuasively than any alternative explanation based on the “theory of special creation,” then we can judge the evolutionary theory to be more probable.
Darwin acknowledges the many “difficulties” with his theory, which turn out to be the very problems that are commonly stressed by proponents of intelligent design theory. But while Darwin admits that these “difficulties” are so severe as to be “staggering,” he tries to resolve them, while arguing that the “theory of creation” has its own difficulties.
Proponents of “intelligent design theory” might object that their theory is not the same as the “theory of creation.” While speaking of the “Creator” implies a literal reading of the Bible’s account of the six days of Creation, they might argue, one can speak of the “Intelligent Designer” without identifying this Designer with the Creator of the Bible. But Darwin reduces the “theory of creation” to the general idea that a powerful intelligence created each species independently, which does not require reading the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal account of six days of creation.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin extends his evolutionary theory to cover human nature, including the moral, intellectual, and religious propensities that make human beings unique in the living world. He argues that the human beings have a natural “moral sense” rooted in a biological nature shaped by evolutionary history. He suggests that religious belief reinforces this moral sense by giving divine sanction to social duties.
Religious conservatives often reject Darwinian science because they think it promotes a morally corrupting materialism. In fact, the underlying motivation for American conservatives adopting intelligent design as an alternative to evolution is their fear of Darwinian immorality. But Darwin’s scientific defense of the natural moral sense suggests that his evolutionary theory actually supports traditional morality as rooted in the evolved nature of the human animal.
So if students were to read Darwin, they could judge not only the scientific truth of his theory but also its moral and religious implications. This would help them to think through the complex interaction of science, morality, and religion. Wouldn’t it be good for biology students to engage in this kind of study?
Of course, evolutionary science has advanced since Darwin’s day. For example, the fossil record today is better known; and we now understand the genetic basis of inheritance. So teachers might want to supplement the reading of Darwin with some reading from a recent textbook of evolutionary theory. But I would suggest that most of the major ideas of evolutionary science can be found in some form in Darwin’s texts.
A few months ago, at a conference in Washington, I presented my proposal for having high school biology students read Darwin. One of the leading opponents of the intelligent design movement was on the panel. He complained that it would not be right to allow high school students to think through these issues for themselves, because only scientific “experts” could judge the evidence for evolution. As far as he was concerned, the purpose of high school science education was to tell students what the “experts” believed, and any proposal to open up the classroom to real debate was actually part of the war on science coming from the Religious Right and George W. Bush.
He also argued that what I was proposing would be more suited for university students. I have done this in some of my university teaching in political science classes that include many biology students. My students read Darwin along with some of the contemporary writing of the intelligent design proponents. This stimulates a lively debate. One of the professors in the biology department at my university has also been successful in using readings from Darwin in his undergraduate course on evolutionary theory.
But generally I have found that most university biologists are opposed to using Darwin’s writings in their classes and allowing their students to study the debate over intelligent design. A few years ago, I noticed that the biology department at my university was offering a course on “The Evolution/Creationism Debate. ”I went to the class and found that it was for biology majors planning on teaching high school biology. At the first meeting of the class, the students were told that they would not be reading any of the publications by proponents of creationism and intelligent design because all of this writing was “crap.” Instead, they would memorize the standard arguments defending evolution so that they could respond to those “ignorant parents” who might object to their teaching. But doesn’t this actually play into the hands of the intelligent design proponents by confirming their claim that the teaching of evolution to students has become indoctrination without freedom of thought?
Recently, Hunter Rawlings, president of Cornell University, devoted his “State of the University Address” to the continuing controversies surrounding evolution and intelligent design. He said that universities such as Cornell needed to do a better job in helping students and the general public to understand the nature of these controversies -- while teaching evolution and not intelligent design as science. He recommended that Cornell promote interdisciplinary courses on evolution and religion that would illuminate the ideas of creationism and intelligent design as compared with evolutionary ideas. Natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists should all be involved in broad-ranging teaching that would explore the scientific, moral, and religious implications of evolutionary thought. To illustrate what he had in mind, he cited the work of Will Provine, a Cornell professor who teaches biology courses that explore the moral and religious dimensions of evolutionary theory. Although Provine dismisses intelligent design as worthless, he has been known to invite defenders of intelligent design such as Phillip Johnson to speak to his students.
I agree with President Rawlings. And I suggest that adopting Darwin’s writings as central texts for university courses on evolution would promote the sort of interdisciplinary teaching that he recommends.
Most biologists believe that debating intelligent design or creationism as alternatives to Darwinian evolution has no place in a science course, because such a debate really belongs in a philosophy or religious studies course. President Rawlings implies that he agrees with this. But doesn’t this separation of science from philosophy and religion manifest just the kind of narrow thinking that President Rawlings says he wants to overcome?
The consequences of such narrow thinking are evident in the recent controversy at the University of Kansas over a proposed course in the religious studies department with the title “Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Other Religious Mythologies.” Paul Mirecki, the chair of religious studies at Kansas, proposed this course in response to recent political disputes over the teaching of evolution in Kansas public schools. In an e-mail message to a listserv, Mirecki identified religious fundamentalists as “fundies,” and he remarked: “The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology.’” Obviously, the proponents of intelligent design saw this as confirming their fear that teaching the evolution debate in a religious studies class would be biased against their position.
At most universities, the organization of the curriculum separates science from the humanities and the social sciences. This promotes the idea among both teachers and students that the study of science must be separated from the study of morality, religion, and politics. This discourages teachers and students from thinking through the moral, religious, and political implications of a scientific idea like Darwinian evolution.
Darwin himself thought deeply about the broad implications of his evolutionary theory. If university teachers and students were to study evolution by studying Darwin’s writings, they could see how the debate over evolution versus intelligent design opens up profound questions about the ultimate origins and meaning of life in the universe.
There is no better way to explore such questions than to teach the controversy over Darwinian evolution by teaching Darwin.
Larry Arnhart is a professor of political science at Northern IllinoisUniversity. His most recent book is Darwinian Conservatism.
On December 20, 2005, U.S. District Judge John Jones ordered the Dover Pennsylvania Area School Board to put science back in its place -- protected from intelligent design and other religious ideas. In Kansas, where we have had no such luck, I participated last semester in a new interdisciplinary college course also designed to put science in its place -- separate not only from religion, but from the humanities in general.
DAS 333 (the numerological implications are coincidental but amusing) -- Human Life and the Universe -- was the work of faculty in physics, geology, the life sciences, philosophy, and English, affiliated with the new Center for the Understanding of Origins at Kansas State University. The course was explicitly developed in the context of the evolution controversy to educate students about the fundamental constitution of science as a discipline. As the sole representative of the non-sciences in the course (the philosopher was a hard-nosed philosopher of science, no fuzzy humanist), I did not expect my contribution to come off as particularly consequential; I was merely there as a reminder of the Other to science, providing a sketch of non-scientific disciplinary thinking. All the action would take place in science's bailiwick. But, by the end of the course, I realized that I had not anticipated the dramatic though inchoate demand for what science cannot deliver. In a twist on C.P. Snow's classic criticism of the emerging chasm between science and the humanities, DAS 333 demonstrated both the necessity of their distinction and the urgent need for both.
A rigorous and reflexive approach to science education is the best way to manage the evolution controversy. The recent Fordham Institute report, "The State of State Science Standards," indirectly but forcefully underscores the wisdom of such an approach; Paul Gross et al in the introduction to the report conclude that the state of science in public schools does not so much reflect the impact of religiously-driven anti-science or intelligent design so much as a demonstrate a correlation between the weak handling of evolution and a general weakness in disciplinary content for science across the board. It follows that the most powerful redress to the resurgence of creationism is a strengthening of disciplinary content in the sciences. Anticipating this connection, DAS 333 provided serious although introductory college-level academic content in its science disciplines. Students calculated luminosities, grappled with the data responsible for the emergence of plate tectonics, and managed some of the microbiology involved in gene suppression. The philosopher of science then used this science content as a source of examples for demonstrating the interaction between theories, their auxiliary hypotheses, and observations, both clarifying the boundary between science and non-science and making the definition of a scientific "theory" clear -- and distinct from mere "opinion."
However, it became increasingly evident to students that the constraints on science, enabling progress in understanding nature, are disabling in other areas. Science cannot, for example, pronounce on the truth or falsehood of propositions like intelligent design. Essentially, the products of science are predictions of new observations consistent with the explanation of existing data. The product of science is not meaning. This set up my work; science: prediction; literature: meaning. I tried to counterpoint the science units with topical fictions, for example, H.G. Wells' "The Star," Burroughs' The Land that Time Forgot, and Crichton's Jurassic Park, in order to demonstrate how the use of language, including figures of speech and fabricated scenarios, elicits feelings and desires in order to construct meaning -- in contrast to what scientific accounts do in response to the same world. This was, more or less, fine. But it was not enough. I discovered at the end that these forays into the literary formation of meaning sidestepped the real force of the humanities in a course like this.
It was during a final class on the implications of the limits of science in the Terri Schiavo case that the greatest challenge to the non-sciences emerged. All students saw the controversy over Schiavo's care as a dispute in which the person whose wishes should have been paramount, Schiavo herself, had no reliable input. They had no idea of how we might achieve greater consensus and resolution on this life-issue as a society. Nor do most of us. The problem with that case, for college students, the general public -- and most of us -- is that, like the issue of abortion, it requires navigating waters murky with emergent technologies, religious tenets, strong feelings, and massive distrust.
Yet this is precisely the miasma into which students must plunge as citizens and decision-makers, and it is for these eventualities they need better and more intelligent preparation. The humanities cannot be content with just developing and promoting the ethical imagination for private use; they must also do much more to connect minds so enriched (all minds, not just those of future lawyers and bioethicists) to complex situations that demand such resources be put into action. The humanities must do more to offset the temptation to either authoritarian or excessively personal solutions for solving complex problems that science often creates, but whose solution is beyond the its reach.
One of the most revealing features of the evolution controversy, as well as so many of the controversies that, properly or improperly, connect religion to public life, is the degree to which it subtly relegates non-science to the personal and the private, to a space beyond the pale of public education. And so it is with the text of the now-infamous statement that Dover, Pennsylvania Area School District science teachers were required to read to students in ninth grade biology. The statement portrays the difference between science and non-science as a distinction between publicly-acknowledged fact and private opinion. Essentially, the creationist strategy is to eliminate the teaching of evolution by privatizing it. "Because Darwin's Theory is a theory," the statement reads, students should be encouraged to explore other views--specifically, "Intelligent Design ... an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view."
As a result of the mere theory-status of Darwinism, "students are encouraged to keep an open mind. The school leaves discussion of the Origins of Life to individual students and their families." In other words, given that evolution, as theory, does not have the form of other scientific propositions constituting or based on laws (gravitation, thermodynamics, and so forth), determination of the origin of species is left to the individual and family, that is, to those realms beyond the institution and beyond the state and its laws. In essence, according to this line of reasoning, scientific "fact" is law, in contrast to mere theory. In the absence of scientific law, the formulation of beliefs about the world is essentially beyond education. Ironically, perhaps, it is now against the law in Dover, Pennsylvania, to exempt evolution from the authority of science that the anti-evolution forces narrowly equate with scientific law.
In any case, for creationists and their teach-the-controversy fellow travelers, "theory" on the one hand, and "authority," "fact," and "law" on the other, exist at opposite ends of the spectrum. Furthermore, where authority, fact, and law end is precisely where "each individual must decide for him or herself" begins; there is no controversy, no public arena in which private individuals, informed by science, by traditions religious and secular, by rational ethics and embodied sentiment and compassion can use their wisdom and knowledge to work out a course of action, and it appears that even the possibility of such deliberation is an alien concept to our students -- as it is to the Dover Area School Board. It was clear to Judge Jones, moreover, that the appeal to individual opinion on the part of the Dover Area School Board was a thinly-disguised effort to support religious authoritarianism; he opined that by reminding school children they can maintain beliefs taught by their parents, critical thinking is stifled, not promoted.
While it is conceivable, even likely, that science will succeed in reasserting methodological naturalism as its fundamental feature, and so reduce the inroads of creationism into science curricula to occasional nuisances easily parried by existing institutions, this is not enough to restore the integrity of public education generally. Just as the weakness of science education accompanies avoidance of evolution, the weakness of humanities education emerges as an avoidance of a host of issues that polarize American social and political life. It is hard to calculate the greater omission.
Linda Brigham is head of the English department and a member of the Center for the Understanding of Origins at Kansas State University.
At the small liberal arts college where I teach, we have recently undertaken a wholesale revision of our core liberal arts curriculum. This is the set of requirements -- some specific courses, some chosen from a range of options -- that all students at the college must take before graduation. For professors in the natural sciences, this revision has required a good deal of thought about the content and nature of science courses offered to a non-major audience.
Conventional wisdom -- usually unquestioned -- has it that there are three basic elements that go into making up a good non-majors science course. First, the class should cover a relatively narrow range of topics. The classic "Physics for Poets" survey class, which attempts to cover an entire field in one semester, is almost always a disaster, satisfying neither the students taking it nor those teaching it. It's better to restrict the course to a subset of a given field, and spend more time covering a smaller range of topics.
Second, the topic chosen as the focus of the course should be something relatively modern. Students respond much more positively when they can immediately see the relevance of the material. Ideally, a good non-major science class should deal with either a "hot topic" in current research, or something connected to an ongoing public policy debate. It's much easier to engage the students in a subject if they're likely to read about it in The New York Times.
The third element is perhaps the most important: the course should involve the minimum possible amount of math. Many of the students who are the target audience for these classes are uncomfortable with mathematical reasoning, and react badly when asked to manipulate and interpret equations. This final characteristic is also the main reason why I am profoundly ambivalent about such classes.
Science for non-majors offers an important chance to reach out to students outside the sciences, and try to give them some appreciation for scientific inquiry. This is critically important, as we live in a time where science itself is under political assault from both the left and right. People with political agendas are constantly peddling distorted views of science, from conspiracy theories regarding pharmaceutical companies and drug development, to industry-backed attempts to challenge the scientific findings regarding global climate change, to the well-documented attempts to force religion into science curricula under the guise of "intelligent design." It's more important than ever for our students to be able to understand and critically evaluate competing claims about science.
I worry, however, that our approach to teaching science as a part of a liberal education is undermining the goals we have set for our classes. Despite the effort we put into providing classes that are both relevant and informative, I am troubled by the subtext of these classes. By their very existence, these classes send two damaging messages to students in other disciplines: first, that science is something alien and difficult, the exclusive province of nerds and geeks; and second, that we will happily accommodate their distaste for science and mathematics, by providing them with special classes that minimize the difficult aspects of the subject.
The first of these messages is sadly misguided. Science is more than just a collection of difficult facts to be learned. It's a way of looking at the universe, a systematic approach to studying the world around us, and understanding how things work. As such, it's as fundamental a part of human civilization as anything to be found in art or literature. The skills needed to do science are the same skills needed to excel in most other fields: careful observation, critical thinking, and an ability to support arguments with evidence.
The second subtext, however, is disturbingly accurate. We do make special accommodations for students who are uncomfortable with science, and particularly mathematics. We offer special classes that teach science with a minimum of math, and we offer math classes at a level below what ought to be expected of college students. Admissions officers and student tour guides go out of their way to reassure prospective students that they won't be expected to complete rigorous major-level science classes, but will be provided with options more to their liking.
It's difficult to imagine similar accommodations being made for students uncomfortable with other disciplines. The expectations for student ability in the humanities are much higher than in the sciences. If a student announced that he or she was not comfortable with reading and analyzing literary texts, we would question whether that student belonged in college at all (and rightly so). We take the existence of "Physics for Poets" for granted, but nobody would consider advocating a "Poetry for Physicists" class for science majors who are uncomfortable with reading and analyzing literature.
The disparity in expectations goes well beyond simple literacy. I was absolutely stunned to hear a colleague suggest, to many approving nods, that all first-year students should be required to read The Theory Toolbox. We would never consider asking all entering students to read H. M. Schey's Div, Grad, Curl, and All That: An Informal Text on Vector Calculus, even though the critical theory described in The Theory Toolbox is every bit as much a specialized tool for literary analysis as vector calculus is a specialized tool for scientific analysis. Yet faculty members in the humanities can seriously propose one as essential for all students in all disciplines, while recoiling from the other.
This distaste for and fear of mathematics extends beyond the student body, into the faculty, and our society as a whole. Richard Cohen, writing in The Washington Post, wrote a column in February in which he dismissed algebra as unimportant, and proclaimed his own innumeracy.
"I confess to be one of those people who hate math. I can do my basic arithmetic all right (although not percentages) but I flunked algebra (once), barely passed it the second time -- the only proof I've ever seen of divine intervention -- somehow passed geometry and resolved, with a grateful exhale of breath, that I would never go near math again."
It's a sad commentary on the state of our society that a public intellectual (even a low-level one like Cohen) can write such a paragraph and be confident that it will be met with as many nods of agreement as howls of derision. If a scientist or mathematician were to say "I can handle simple declarative sentences all right (although not transitive verbs)," they could never expect to be taken seriously again. Illiteracy among the general public is viewed as a crisis, but innumeracy is largely ignored, because everybody knows that Math is Hard.
Fundamentally, this problem begins well below the college level, with the sorry state of science and math teaching in our middle schools and high schools. The ultimate solution will need to involve a large-scale reform of math and science teaching, from the early grades all the way through college. As college professors, though, we can begin the process by demanding a little more of our students, and not being quite so quick to accommodate gaps in their knowledge of math and science. We should recognize that mathematical and scientific literacy are every bit as important for an educated citizen as knowledge of history and literature, and insist that our students meet high standards in all areas of knowledge.
Of course, the science faculties are not without responsibilities in this situation. Forcing non-science majors to take the same courses as science majors seems like an unappealing prospect in large part because so many introductory science courses are unappealing. If we are to force non-science majors to take introductory science major courses, we will also need to commit to making those courses more acceptable to a broader range of students. One good start is the teaching initiative being promoted by Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate in physics Carl Wieman who is leaving the University of Colorado to pursue educational reforms at the University of British Columbia, but more effort is needed. If we improve the quality of introductory science teaching and push for greater rigor in the science classes offered to non-majors, we should see benefits well outside the sciences, extending to society as a whole.
As academics, we are constantly asked to look below the surface to the implications of our actions. We are told that we need to consider the hidden messages sent by who we hire, what we assign, how we speak to students, and even what we wear. Shouldn't we also consider the hidden message sent by the classes we offer, and what they say about our educational priorities?
Edward Morley is the psuedonym of an assistant professor of physics.
As we approach the second decade of the century, it is fair to ask what young medical doctors should know and where and when they should learn it. But amid calls for revisions to the undergraduate premedical curriculum, undergraduate colleges must guard against being co-opted as “farm clubs” for “big league” schools of medicine.
In the American system of higher education, to paraphrase the opening of a popular television series, the task of educating and training tomorrow’s doctors is shared by two separate yet equally important institutions: baccalaureate colleges of arts and sciences and professional schools of medicine. And, as the ubiquitous use of the term “pre-med” implies, undergraduate educators have long accepted their responsibility to equip students who aspire to become physicians with the knowledge and skills essential for admission to medical school. It follows from this premise that changes in the scope and focus of medical school curricula will raise legitimate questions about the courses most appropriate for premed students.
This argument furnishes the starting point for a recent contribution by Jules L. Dienstag to the New England Journal of Medicine (“Relevance and Rigor in Premedical Education”). In his essay, Dienstag notes the demands placed on medical school faculties by an ever expanding range of “new scientific material” and deplores the “widely varied levels of science preparation” among first-year medical students. As a remedy, he proposes a radical reshaping of the pre-medical science curriculum and a corresponding revision of both the Medical College Admissions Test (or MCAT) and the criteria used by medical school admissions committees. By “refocusing” and “increasing [the] relevance” of the science courses pre-med students take, Dienstag argues, undergraduate institutions could better prepare graduates for professional school while simultaneously opening up additional space in the curriculum for “an expansive liberal arts education encompassing literature, languages, the arts, humanities, and social sciences.”
Dienstag’s prescription deserves serious consideration by faculty and administrators at baccalaureate and professional institutions alike. He offers valuable suggestions on a range of issues. But Dienstag naturally approaches this topic from his own perspective -- that of the dean for medical education at Harvard Medical School. In advocating for changes that would address the challenges facing his own colleagues, he ignores (or at least passes too quickly over) complications and contradictions that those changes would create at undergraduate colleges.
Each entering class at any undergraduate institution contains many more students who express their firm intention to become medical doctors than will ever apply to a medical school, let alone gain admission. Some will learn in Chemistry 101 that their intellectual gifts are not those of a scientist. Others will be seduced by the excitement of laboratory research and pursue Ph.D. rather than M.D. degrees. Still others will surprise themselves (not to mention their parents) by discovering a passion for literature or archaeology, economics or music that overwhelms their earlier conviction about their destined career paths.
Such defections are scarcely surprising, given the limited knowledge and experience that high school students rely on as the basis for forming their views about possible life goals. But it is also important to recognize that many undergraduate institutions – liberal arts colleges in particular – actively encourage their students to remain intellectually curious and open to the full range of disciplines that they sponsor. “Pursue your passion,” we advise incoming first-year students at the College of the Holy Cross. “Find what excites and fulfills you and see where it may lead.” Tracking pre-med students into what Dienstag describes as a science curriculum with “a tighter focus on science that ‘matters’ to medicine” runs counter to this liberal arts ethos. While it might better prepare the minority of those students who will one day matriculate at a school of medicine, it could handicap those whose scientific interests point them toward industry or teaching and research. It could also restrict the breadth of the scientific education that non-science majors would take with them if later decisions led them towards majors in the humanities, arts or social sciences. And even for the small number of students who would in fact emerge from such a streamlined curriculum and enter medical school, one has to question the wisdom of targeting “biologically relevant” material at the expense of courses in topics as critical to the future of our planet as ecology and population genetics.
Another way of explaining the unease that some faculty members at liberal arts colleges may feel over Dienstag’s proposal is that it implies that the study of biology, chemistry, physics and statistics is undertaken as a means -- and to one very particular end. The attitude we seek to foster in our students at liberal arts institutions, by contrast, is that one studies a discipline for what it reveals about the universe we inhabit and about what the mission statement at the College of the Holy Cross calls “basic human questions.” The knowledge and skills that one acquires in the process will be equally useful in one’s career and in one’s life outside the workplace and certainly do not limit who one may become, either professionally or personally.
There is no question that the combined eight-year premedical and medical school curriculum that has served us well for decades is coming under increasing pressure. With each year that passes, society expects more of its physicians; as Dienstag notes, we now demand that they be trained not only in medical science but also in “ethics, … listening skills, and skills relevant to health policy and economics.” Unless we are to extend the already long training period by another year, changes in what we teach and how we teach it are inevitable.
Dienstag urges those of us who teach undergraduates not to “shy away from the challenge” posed by this shifting environment. I suggest that the challenge we confront can not be addressed effectively without all parties being open to possible changes in the way they contribute to the process. More importantly, our colleagues in the professional schools must understand that the term “pre-med” designates a provisional career aspiration far more often than it does a firm commitment. Undergraduate students are by definition still learning about their world and seeking out their place in it, so our institutions serve their needs when we balance the importance of effective pre-professional preparation with the equally compelling need for curricular flexibility and disciplinary breadth.
Timothy R. Austin
Timothy R. Austin is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college at the College of the Holy Cross, which sent 43 members of the Class of 2008 to medical schools -- 29 of them at top research universities.
Human beings are the product of a few million years of evolution. Awareness of this is part of what it means to be modern. But most of the time this recognition remains general and vague. We get along just fine without thinking about the scale of the processes involved. We act as if a thousand years is a long time; it can be a strain to imagine the world of a few decades ago. It is hard to reckon just how thin a slice of human time is there in recorded history. That we ever developed the capacity to record things at all is strange and improbable. As recently as ten or twelve thousand years ago, our ancestors devoted most of their waking hours to finding enough calories to stay alive.
“To date,” writes Michael Tomasello, co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, “no animal species other than humans has been observed to have cultural behaviors that accumulate modifications and so ratchet up in complexity over time.” At some point that complexity begins to spike -- an exponential surge that comes to seem almost normal. But how is it possible?
In Why We Cooperate, just published by Boston Review Books, Tomasello gives a succinct account of his work with a research team conducting comparative studies of the behavior of human infants and our closest primate relations, especially chimpanzees.
Their findings suggest that we are distinguished, as a species, by capacities for empathy, generosity, cooperation, and a sense of fair play. Some of these tendencies are found among the great apes, but not to anything like the degree to which they manifest themselves in children from very early in their development. These distinctive capacities form the bedrock of our capacity to accumulate, over time, not just wealth but complex behavior.
The new book -- based on the Tanner Lectures delivered by Tomasello at Stanford University in early 2008 -- is a lay reader's introduction to work described in The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard University Press, 1999) and Origins of Human Communication (MIT Press, 2008). Peers who comment on his work in the “forum” section of Why We Cooperate sometimes question the degree to which these abilities are hard-wired into us -- rather than being acquired through, or at least stimulated by, nurture and communication. But they concur that Tomasello and his team have opened up fruitful lines of inquiry into the source and nature of human development.
There is evidence, Tomasello writes, “that from around their first birthdays -- when they first begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings -- human children are already cooperative and helpful in many, though obviously not all, situations.” Faced with an adult they have never met before, for example, an infant between the ages of 14 and 18 months will help with “everything from fetching out-of-reach objects to opening cabinet drawers when the adult’s hands are full.”
This behavior is not the work of little rational-choice theorists in diapers. Children who were consistently rewarded for their assistance were found to be less helpful in subsequent experiments. Chimpanzees, too, were found to possess some inclination toward altruism. The major distinction on this point is that small children are both better able and more willing to share information in order to be helpful -- for example, by pointing out the location of a stapler whose whereabouts in the laboratory the child knows. While apes are capable of some very limited exchanges with humans, their messages tend to be self-interested (helping convey where a tool is that will be useful in getting them food) and they do not teach each other to communicate.
As they get older, writes Tomasello, the “relatively indiscriminate cooperativeness” of human children “becomes mediated by such influences as their judgments of likely reciprocity and their concern for how others in the group judge them....” This is not a matter of self-interest alone -- of doing unto others just as generously as they do unto you. The knack for moral bookkeeping does develop, of course. But first we acquire a sense that there are general rules for how things ought to be done, and that everyone ought to abide by them.
Three year-old children were shown a game that could be played by one person. “When a puppet later entered and announced that it, too, would play the game, but then did so in a different way,” reports Tomasello, “most of the children objected, sometimes vociferously. The children’s language when they objected demonstrated clearly that they were not just expressing their personal displeasure at a deviation. They made generic, normative declarations like, ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ ‘One can’t do that,’ and so forth.”
This is intriguing because the children’s perspective is disinterested. “It is one thing to follow a norm ... to avoid the negative consequences of not following it,” says Tomasello, “and it is quite another to legislate the norm when not involved oneself.”
In the case of the puppet experiment, I suppose “enforce” is a more appropriate word than “legislate.” But either way, it suggests the early development of a capacity to grasp the principle of a common and impersonal norm.
This both reflects and reinforces our capacity for cooperative action -- which may be the very thing that distinguished our hominid ancestors from other primates. Groups of small children “engage in all kinds of verbal and nonverbal communication for forming joint goals and attention and for coordinating their various roles in the activity,” says Tomasello, while his colleagues find nothing comparable to this range and complexity of cooperation among the great apes.
"Indeed,” he writes, “I believe that the ecological context within which these skills and motivations developed was a sort of cooperative foraging. Humans were put under some kind of selective pressure to collaborate in their gathering of food -- they became obligatory collaborators -- in a way that their closest primate relatives were not.... We could also speculate that since hunter-gatherer societies tend to be egalitarian, with bullies often ostracized or killed, humans underwent a kind of self-domestication process in which very aggressive and acquisitive individuals were weeded out by the group.”
Thanks to millennia of progress, we have reached a plateau of development where it is commonly accepted that existence is a war of all against all, and Donald Trump is taken to embody the traits that drove human evolution itself. (Otherwise he might look like the missing link with a hairpiece.)
None of this makes for optimism about our next ten thousand years or so -- or decade, for that matter. Hard as it is to wrap one’s mind around the depths of time and transformation involved in reaching this stage of civilization, it can be still more difficult to imagine how we can continue. The scale of possible aggression now -- let alone the unintended consequences of raw acquisitiveness -- go beyond anything our primate brains are quite ready to picture.
But for all that, the research by Tomasello and his associates is at least somewhat encouraging. It suggests that collaboration, sharing, and even generosity are not late developments in human existence -- merely secondary or superfluous capacities. They are essential. They came first. And they could yet assert themselves as a basis for reorganizing life itself.
Then, perhaps, our prehistory would come to an end -- and something like a civilization worthy of human beings would begin.