Students should be taught to question evolution

The reaction to the Alabama State Board of Education’s recent decision to keep an “evolution” disclaimer in certain science textbooks was unfortunately typical of the modern left.

“We’re afraid of evolution.”

“Inch by inch toward unconstitutional theocracy.”

“I guess the anti-science/evolution crowd doesn’t believe in stars either.”

Those were just a few of the comments written after the board unanimously voted earlier this month to continue using the one-page disclaimer which, as anyone who takes the time to read it would easily understand, is a rather moderate yet educational explanation of the controversy.

The four-paragraph message begins with a brief explanation of a “theory,” as understood and used by the scientific community. It then goes on to explain how some theories have stood the test of time, while others have fallen as new observations were made.

After the disclaimer succinctly explains the theory of evolution by natural selection, and how the textbook states that it forms the basis for our understanding of how such diverse life came to be, the message lays out a path ahead for the classroom.

“Because of its importance and implications, students should understand the nature of evolutionary theories,” the disclaimer states. “They should learn to make distinctions between the multiple meanings of evolution, to distinguish between observations and assumptions used to draw conclusions, and to wrestle with the unanswered questions and unresolved problems still faced by evolutionary theory.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable and academically sound message, yet those who oppose its inclusion would have you believe it’s a transcription of last Sunday’s sermon from Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.

Here’s one particularly hot piece of fire and brimstone that ends the controversial disclaimer:

“There are many unanswered questions about the origin of life. With the explosion of new scientific knowledge in biochemical and molecular biology and exciting new fossil discoveries, Alabama students may be among those who use their understanding and skills to contribute to knowledge and to answer many unanswered questions. Instructional material associated with controversy should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully, and critically considered.”

Whoa. That’s really some harsh, backward stuff, right? We wouldn’t want our students keeping an “open mind” or “carefully and critically” considering anything, would we?

Sadly, it’s a sign of the times in public education, from kindergarten straight through college. Rather than welcome the inclusion of different points of view and encourage the ensuing discussion and debate (which were, once upon a time, the hallmarks of a liberal arts education), the left wants to keep our children in “safe spaces,” free from controversial lessons, free from ideas that might challenge their assumptions, and free from … well, an education at all.

Indoctrination is a better description of the environment they wish to create or, in many cases, have already created.

Rather than a step backward, such a disclaimer is actually a step forward in education, and the process of including it, and even the debate surrounding its inclusion, provides a lesson of its own.

One might even convince me that similar disclaimers ought to be placed in every textbook, regardless of the subject, to remind students – and teachers and parents – that nothing in this world that has been discovered by man is certain, and that most of the things we once held as true are now relics of well intentioned but hopelessly incorrect people.

Our children – and this applies to ourselves, as well – should be reminded that its not only permissible, but preferable, to maintain a healthy level of curiosity and skepticism about the lessons we’re taught and the things we observe. More than that, a good education should instill into them the gift of self-criticism, that is, the ability to stop, reflect, and change the course of one’s actions or beliefs after something new is learned. And no, this need not threaten faith.

As John Maynard Keynes is reported to have once said in response to such a course correction, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

To do otherwise is willful ignorance, which is a failing that can just as easily be found among professors as pastors, and has no place in a good education.