My favorite high school teacher, Al Ladendorff, conducted his American history class like an extended version of “Meet the Press.” Nothing, not even the textbooks other teachers treated as Holy Writ, was safe from attack. I looked forward to that class every day.
My biology class, sadly, was another story. I slogged joylessly through all the phyla and the principles of Darwinism, memorizing as best as I could. It never occurred to me that this class could have been as interesting as history until I recently started to read about “intelligent design,” the latest assault on the teaching of evolution in our schools. Many education experts and important scientists say we have to keep this religious-based nonsense out of the classroom. But is that really such a good idea?
I am as devout a Darwinist as anybody. I read all the essays on evolution by the late Stephen Jay Gould, one of my favorite writers. The God I worship would, I think, be smart enough to create the universe without, as Genesis alleges, violating His own observable laws of conservation of matter and energy in a six-day construction binge. But after interviewing supporters and opponents of intelligent design, which argues among other things that today’s organisms are too complex to have evolved from primordial chemicals by chance or necessity, I think critiques of modern biology, like Ladendorff’s contrarian lessons, could be one of the best things to happen to high school science.
Drop in on an average biology class and you will find the same slow, deadening march of memorization that I endured at 15. Why not enliven this with a student debate on contrasting theories? Why not have an intelligent design advocate stop by to be interrogated? Many students, like me, find it hard to understand evolutionary theory, and the scientific method itself, until they are illuminated by contrasting points of view.
And why stop with biology? Physics teachers could ask students to explain why a perpetual-motion machine won’t work. Earth science teachers could show why the steady-state theory of the universe lost out to the Big Bang — just as Al Ladendorff exposed the genius of the U.S. Constitution by showing why the Articles of Confederation went bust.
Amazingly, neither pro- nor anti-intelligent design people like the idea of injecting their squabble into biology classes. John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, which promotes intelligent design, said that requiring its use in schools would turn their critique of evolution “into a political football.” Eugenie C. Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education Inc. in Oakland, Calif., said it would distract from proven evolutionary research, crowd out other topics and create confusion.
Some fine biology teachers said the same thing. Sam Clifford in Georgetown, Tex., said that intelligent design is “a piecemeal, haphazard concoction” that he does not have time for. Dan Coast at Mount Vernon High School in Fairfax County said that a dissection of intelligent design in his class would be seen by some students as an attack on their religion. They all seemed to be saying that most U.S. high school students and teachers aren’t smart enough to handle such an explosive topic. But how do we know if we keep paying expensive lawyers to make sure the experiment is never conducted?
The intelligent-design folks say theirs is not a religious doctrine. They may be lying, and are just softening up the teaching of evolution for an eventual pro-Genesis assault. But they passed one of my tests. They answered Gould’s favorite question: If you are real scientists, then what evidence would disprove your hypothesis? West indicated that any discovery of precursors of the animal body plans that appeared in the Cambrian period 500 million years ago would cast doubt on the thesis that those plans, in defiance of Darwin, evolved without a universal common ancestor.
That is the start of a great class, and some teachers are doing this, albeit quietly. John Angus Campbell, who teaches the rhetoric of science and speech at the University of Memphis, has been trying to coax more of them into letting their students consider Darwin’s critics. Like me, Campbell reveres the 19th-century philosopher John Stuart Mill, who said good ideas should be questioned lest they degenerate into dogma.
Turning Darwin into an unassailable god without blemishes, Campbell said, doesn’t give student brains enough exercise. “If you don’t see the risks, if you don’t see the gaps,” he said, “you don’t see the genius of Darwin.”
The writer covers schools for The Post.