The teacher was young, hip, and hugely popular with the kids in her Georgia public middle school, a talented teacher in many ways. Everybody wanted Miss Reynolds for seventh grade science.
“You may have noticed in your syllabus that we’re talking about evolution today,” she began one day, a few weeks in. “Now,” she said — I picture the palms out, eyes closed, head cocked, the posture of assured commiseration — “I know this is a controversial thing. But I want you to understand that this is just a theory. There are lots of other theories too. This is just one guy’s idea. M’kay?”
My son Connor was in the class. He was raised on the wonder of natural selection and sees the implications of it everywhere. He felt a bit betrayed to hear a teacher he really liked giving evolution the “just a theory” treatment.
It wasn’t for long. Within days, she was on to something else.
This, it turns out, is standard operating procedure in US classrooms. A NYT article written around the time of the Kitzmiller trial noted that even if evolution is in the curriculum, science teachers nationwide generally downplay, gloss over, or completely ignore it.
Dr. John Frandsen, a retired zoologist, was at a dinner for teachers in Birmingham, Alabama recently when he met a young woman who had just begun work as a biology teacher in a small school district in the state. Their conversation turned to evolution.
“She confided that she simply ignored evolution because she knew she’d get in trouble with the principal if word got about that she was teaching it,” he recalled. “She told me other teachers were doing the same thing.”
Dr. Gerald Wheeler, a physicist who heads the National Science Teachers Association, said many members of his organization “fly under the radar” of fundamentalists by introducing evolution as controversial, which scientifically it is not, or by noting that many people do not accept it, caveats not normally offered for other parts of the science curriculum.
It isn’t usually the beliefs of the teacher that screw things up but a desire to sidestep a firestorm from parents. And though opposition is almost entirely religious parents, not all religious parents are opposed. In fact, Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education has observed that it’s a non-issue in Catholic schools — at least since John Paul II gave the infallible okie-doke in 1996.
Last year Connor was a freshman in high school and hit Life Sciences and evolution again. Once again it was a teacher he really liked, an affable coach who taught science brilliantly as well. But once again, Connor knew the odds of a strong presentation were not good.
Sure enough, on the first day of the evolution unit, Coach Davis strode to the front of the room, cleared his throat, and said: “Today we’re starting the unit on evolution. Evolution, as you know, is just a theory.”
I can just picture my boy’s eyes, the only part of his face that betrays his feelings when he’s holding the lid on tight.
The teacher paused. “Now,” he continued, “let me tell you what the word ‘theory’ actually means.”
Connor described it to me with obvious relief. “He said a theory is something that explains what facts mean, and that ‘theory’ doesn’t mean something is just a guess. He said there are strong theories and weak theories, and that evolution is one of the strongest in science. He said that gravity is a theory, but it doesn’t mean we’re not sure about gravity. It was awesome.”
According to the ongoing Fordham Foundation studies of science education, it’s not strictly a North/South thing:
But even that map reflects only the quality of state science standards. What happens in the classroom is anybody’s guess. Miss Reynolds and Coach Davis are three miles apart in a state with the highest grade in science standards, yet one of them is hitting it out of the park while the other settles for a bunt. One thing is for sure — by presenting evolution intelligently and in depth, my son’s more recent Southern science teacher is doing better than many of his counterparts, even at the higher latitudes.
It’s not about the defense of the concept for Connor. It mostly just pains him to hear people he likes and respects, and who should know better, saying dumb things. I’ve seen him flash the same disappointed face at me. And half the time he’s right.
Hopefully we’ll both carry away another lesson, something Kurt Vonnegut once said. Considering what a mess of nonsense and bad wiring we are, I don’t get too depressed anymore by the dumb things we say and do. That’s normal. Instead, I’m mostly gratified that we ever get ANYTHING right.
And we do, despite ourselves. Despite the fact that evolution so decisively dethrones us, that it so deflates our mighty self-importance, we still figured it out, and we’re still passing it on. Incompletely and inelegantly, yes. But given the sorry way evolution actually threw us together, I say woohoo.
Evolutionary awesomeness for kids at Charlie’s Playhouse