[Part 2 in the three-part series “When science goes south.” Part 1 here]

Quick recap. My 9-year-old daughter won a national Evolution and Art contest. Her school’s assistant principal, Ms. Warner, said the principal would interview her about it on the school’s morning news program. But they wouldn’t be calling it an Evolution and Art contest, just an “Art” contest – because evolution isn’t in the elementary curriculum.

Becca and I were livid.

Becca is an elementary teacher herself, so she knows things. Usually you want to start by going straight to the person involved for these things rather than escalating. But in this case, she suggested I talk to the principal, Mr. Robinson, rather than Ms. Warner. He’d be interviewing Laney, for one thing. This wasn’t about Ms. Warner / but about seeing to it that Laney’s accomplishment wasn’t misrepresented. Mr. Robinson was among the most skilled, reasonable, and student-centered of the weirdly high number of school principals I have known. So a likely ally.

I asked for a quick meeting.

I knew that the best approach would be to focus on our shared interest — in this case the students and the educational messages they receive — so I started with the cool fact that a nine-year old girl in his school wants to be a scientist. She entered this contest to demonstrate her understanding of evolution and she won. I said “Sandy Warner called and said you’d be interviewing Laney, but said it would be called an ‘Art’ contest rather than ‘Evolution & Art.’ When my wife asked why, she said evolution was not in the elementary curriculum.”

(Years later, I still can’t say that without shaking my head in amazement that anyone would try an explanation that ludicrous.)

It’s certainly in the middle and high school curriculum, I said, handing him a highlighted copy of each. If a third grader won a national calculus competition, no one would say, “Dagnabbit, if only that was in the elementary curriculum we could celebrate it!”

“I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not the reason anyway,” I said. “Sandy was trying to avoid conflict with parents. That’s an understandable impulse, but not when it damages the educational environment.” I handed him a summary of the depressing Penn State study suggesting that conflict avoidance is the strategy currently doing the most damage to the scientific literacy of our kids.

Then there’s my daughter, and the interview the following day. Among many other problems, I said that Delaney would be unable to answer his questions in any terms but evolutionary ones. Even an open-ended question like, “So tell me about your monkey” would lead to a description of the three adaptations she devised, since that’s what the contest was about.

He was nodding vigorously the whole time. “Absolutely,” he said. “There’s not the slightest reason for her to hide any aspect of her accomplishment. But the curriculum is irrelevant in any case because…”

Oh my word, he was going to say it himself. Before I could even mount the slam-dunk argument against Warner’s ridiculous attempt, he would say it himself.

“…because it’s student-initiated. Teachers have to stay within the curriculum, sure, but if a student initiates a project or has an outside accomplishment, they are absolutely able to talk about it freely without any regard to curriculum.” He explained that he was trying to encourage even more of this, to get the school celebrating outside accomplishments of all kinds to integrate the students’ outside lives into their school life. “This fits into that perfectly,” he said.

Principals tend to know things. Not all, but most. Actual educational policies. Court precedents. Best practices.

Total elapsed time in his office? 7 minutes.

Now step back a minute and see what happened here. We (GOOD GUYS!) sent notice of Laney’s contest win to her teacher, who thought it was fantastic and submitted it for inclusion in the broadcast. GOOD GUY!

A middle administrator attempted to screw it up. BAD GUY!

The principal immediately recognized that the middle admin had screwed up, and he put it right. GOOD GUY!

Pretty good ratio, isn’t it? But we often take our cue from the one person who did something dumb and respond with a scorched-earth policy that engulfs potential allies and puts everyone in a defensive crouch. Once I do that, they’re only looking to survive the attack. They can’t hear what I have to say, much less see that they have more in common with me than with the perp. So they just circle the wagons.

More often than not, the perp is surrounded by people who agree with you that the act was wrong, people who can join you in condemning the act and fixing the problem if you let them.

I’d like to say that’s the end of the story.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.