Let’s begin by turning our attention to Deb’s concern about the price we pay by closing our minds to alternative points of view in science and elsewhere. In some respects I couldn’t agree more, open mindedness is a personal virtue, one that I aspire to in my own life. I hope that I can live up to Deb’s expectations for me!
Of course, our striving for open mindedness has to be tempered with what I would call discernment. Each day we have to entertain a myriad of choices, but ultimately we have to make final decisions, sometimes critical ones having to do with our own welfare or that of other people. Good judgement is the balancing act we perform that results from maintaining an open mind while relying on significant lessons we have learned about what sources of information and advice we can trust as we go about selecting between alternative courses of action.
In addition, I would agree with Deb that it is incumbent upon us to inculcate open mindedness in our children, and I do believe that the schools, both public and private, have an important role to play in this process. That said, schools are also a way for us confer upon our children the hard-won rewards of our experience, not only as individuals, but as a culture and as a civilization. To lay before them a set of options without offering them the benefit of our collective knowledge would be a disservice, perhaps even a crime.
Nowhere is this obligation clearer than in the K-12 science curriculum. That is because, unlike other other fields of human endeavor, after centuries of struggle, the scientific enterprise has answered fundamental questions about the nature of the world beyond any reasonable doubt. The confidence of these positions is embodied in what is called the scientific consensus. While acknowledging that scientific “truths” such as these are always provisional, we understand them to be of a different quality than competing opinions and so raise the bar as to what will be the foundational knowledge that we choose to transmit to young and growing minds.
To understand this better, I think that it is useful for us to consider another element of the science curriculum and that is the germ theory of disease. I ask that the participants in this discussion to test the validity of their approaches by considering how well they fare in this analogous context.
|Louis Pasteur photographed
by Pierre Lamy Petit
Nonetheless, the germ theory has become enshrined as part of the scientific canon and recognized as the undisputed scientific consensus. More than a theoretical notion, Pasteur’s and Robert Koch's legacy has been the foundation for the development of medical therapies - everything from the practice of asepsis in hospitals, to childhood vaccinations to antibiotic drugs - that have saved hundreds of millions of lives.
|Quartz (Rob Lavinsky / IRocks.com)
I want to emphasize that the question I am posing is not whether there is some documented basis to these competing claims - I am confident that the list of citations is endless - but whether they should be introduced into the public school curriculum to balance the teaching of the germ theory of disease.
|Two-year old Rahima Banu of Bangladesh,
the last person infected with
naturally occurring Variola major, in 1975
Furthermore should the science curriculum in this regard be expanded to include a discussion of the “ultimate” cause of disease, causes that in some immaterial sense precede its origins in entirely natural processes?
Should students in a high school biology class learn that disease might find metaphysical roots in the karmic balancing of accounts from our past-life transgressions? Should they be taught that cancer, for example, could be construed as the fruit our original sin and proof of our fundamentally corrupt nature? There are not an inconsiderable number of people, if the popularity of Oprah's book selections is any indication, who believe that the ailments that beset us, including those that torment the tiniest infants, emanate from our failure to maintain a positive attitude about ourselves and about the world around us. Should these points of view be included in our biology textbooks?
So, in closing this addition to the discussion, I ask for you to put the particulars of evolution debate aside and consider the analogous question about teaching a different scientific theory - with an open mind of course. I look forward to hearing whether you see the parallels as being applicable to the original debate and how concerns about “teaching the controversy” might apply here.
Open Mindedness and the Teaching of Science in Public Schools by Marc Merlin is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at thoughtsarise.blogspot.com.