¿ against teaching the controversies (or “strengths and weaknesses”) ?

In an earlier post, I commented on some concerns emerging from these items::

  • In the NY Times: Opponents of Evolution Adopting a New Strategy
  • A story by Gary Scharrer for the San Antonio Express-News, reporting on the conflict shaping up over revision of the science standards in Texas.
  • By Steven Schafersman, President, Texas Citizens for Science: A Critical Review that covers developments reported in the NY Times article and the article by Gary Scharer, as well as reaction by Intelligent Design proponents.

These stories are still reverberating. See, for example:

Justifiably, much of the attention in the blogs and commentaries has been concerned with the misinformation about science expressed in these reports by the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Texas State Board of Education see, for example, Steven Schafersman’s review (also linked above), and this blog post by Gary Hurd.

A June 10 editorial in the Baton Rouge Advocate casts this as dishonesty — not merely ignorance — and dishonesty about the politics, as well as about science:

Advocates in Texas, no more than in Louisiana, will not admit they’re pushing their theological views into public school classrooms. But of course they are. They add dishonesty of purpose to the dishonesty of their presentations about science.

Aside from the misrepresentations of science, and of their politics, however, we also read astonishing comments about curriculum, which is the primary concern of this curricublog. The purpose of this post is to comment on the statement quoted and commented on here by the Sensuous Curmudgeon:

Moving along:

Vice Chairman David Bradley, R-Beaumont, told the Chronicle, “Evolution is not a fact. Evolution is a theory and, as such, cannot be proved. Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions.”

Right. Students need to reach their own conclusions about chemistry and physics too.

Hey, school board! That’s what professional researchers do — you know, people with doctorates in the relevant field. High school students don’t know how to reach “their own conclusions” about science. That’s why they’re in school! That’s why we call them students!

[Curmudgeon’s emphases – tw]

Brief comments on a post on John Pieret’s blog seem appropriate:

From “Brian”:”Students need to be able to jump to their own conclusions”? WTF?

While the ridicule is well deserved, I want to take exception to something possibly implied in Curmudgeon’s response, where he says that “High school students don’t know how to reach ‘their own conclusions’ about science. That’s why they’re in school! That’s why we call them students!

Compare this with Rush Limbaugh’s reaction to something Gary Nash (UCLA history professor, and co-director of the national history standards development project; see Nash, 2007, and Symcox, 2002). From the RUSH LIMBAUGH television show, Oct 28, 1994

LIMBAUGH: . . . Let’s listen to Mr. Nash again. This one is his view of studying history. Watch this.

GARY NASH (video clip): One way of changing it is to infuse classrooms with lots of exciting, engaging materials and really insist that students not take the word out of the textbook and accept it as the gospel, as the literal truth. We want students, really, to interrogate the data. We want them to exercise their own judgment in reading conflicting views of any piece of history and understand that there are multiple perspectives on any particular historical era, movement, event, for that matter. We want this to be a democratic history where it is a history for the people, of the people and by the people.

LIMBAUGH: . . . . this notion here that the children — they should take the textbook, read through the textbook and say, “Hmm, I don’t believe that. I’m going to look for something in the alternative book,” and go to another book. These kids don’t know beans and that’s the key. That’s why they’re called students. . . .

[emphasis added by Tony Whitson. Also, my MS Word grammar checker doesn’t like “for the people, of the people and by the people”
— says it’s too fragmented, and should be rewritten ! ]

A well-established purpose of social studies is for students to learn how to reach judgments on controversial matters based on critical examination of evidence. Research by Keith Barton shows that it’s not even enough for students to learn these things as “critical thinking skills,” if, despite having learned the “skills” for evaluating evidence when prompted to do so as a classroom activity, they have not also developed the dispositions to appreciate the need for doing so — i.e., if despite having learned how to examine evidence, they persist in “jumping to their own conclusions,” without regard for evidence, based on what’s most comfortable for them to believe. (Click here for my use and citation of Keith’s research in a prior post on “Children of Jihad.”)

The opportunity for such learning is preempted if we avoid controversial areas in the subjects that we teach — even, perhaps especially, at pre-college levels.

Consider this statement, in Steven Schafersman’s generally excellent review of the recent Texas happenings:

. . . if there were weaknesses in some explanation, as there are in many hypotheses that require testing, it would not be part of a scientific theory and certainly would not be taught in high school. There is only time in high school science courses to teach what scientists consider the most accurate and reliable scientific information and explanations science possesses.

In my view, the curricular choice that this represents would be a choice to not teach science, but instead to teach selected “possessions” of science. Before I continue with that, let me give a little more space for what Steven says on this:

. . . The various aspects of a scientific theory that are well-understood and accepted by the scientific community are taught in lower-level science instruction, such as high schools. If there is scientific disagreement about an explanation of a natural process, which means the current theory is incomplete, this is not the subject of instruction in high schools, where students need to learn science’s most reliable knowledge first before engaging with the legitimate scientific controversies. Legitimate scientific debate about competing hypotheses that wish to extend a scientific theory occurs in university science departments and scientific journals, not high schools.


. . . Some of Darwin’s original hypotheses have suffered this fate, such as his pangenesis explanation for heredity and his acceptance of Lamarckism, but there are many others known to historians of evolutionary biology. On the other hand, Darwin’s hypothesis of natural selection has been repeatedly tested and corroborated, so is now part of modern evolutionary theory. There is no problem teaching high school students about these past hypothetical mistakes as “weaknesses” of earlier evolutionary hypotheses, but to suggest, as is [Creationist TX SBOE member Ken] Mercer’s true intention, that the modern scientific theory of evolution contains such “issues” or “weaknesses” is mendacious nonsense.

It seems to me not only that there’s “no problem” teaching about discarded hypotheses and explanations, but that there are big problems not teaching about controversies in the sciences — current as well as past.

For one thing, this presents the currently accepted beliefs as “possessions” that are to be accepted on the authority of the sciences themselves, rather than on the basis of the kinds of evidence and logic that persuade scientists that some beliefs and explanations are worth holding or pursuing, while others are rejected. If science’s “possessions” are presented for learning in this way, it makes it all the easier for the Mercers of this world to persuade their audiences that it is they who are the champions of evidence, vs. adversaries who cling to unquestionable authority.

More fundamentally, again: to teach only the sciences’ “possessions” is something different from actually teaching the sciences. Teaching the sciences is not only possible before the college level, it is essential, if we want students to even know what science is when they enter college, or when they graduate from high school and take up their roles as voting citizens.

I have not yet seen Hakim’s 2007 book for high school students on the work of Einstein and modern physicists, but I have heard her talk about it at the Smithsonian. She tells the story of Einstein’s resistance to the idea that the Universe is expanding — and how after rejecting some arguments for that proposition, he was persuaded when he was presented with other kinds of evidence.

The fact that this is a story from the past, for which we know the answer, should not detract from the use of current, live controversies in teaching the sciences to pre-college students. Materials could be prepared so that advocacy of conflicting views could be presented with the evidence and arguments in forms accessible to students, ideally with advocates explaining what kinds of evidence would persuade them to change their minds. Students would not be told that they should “jump to their own conclusions.” Indeed, they’d see quite plainly that they don’t have the background that the scientists are relying on to make the judgments they are making — or even to understand the evidence and analysis at the level necessary for making those judgments. But they would acquire a sense of how this happens (rather than being sheltered from awareness of controversy in the sciences) — and they could see how starkly and completely the actual controversies in the sciences are completely unlike what the Creationists and ID advocates proclaim as “scientific controversy.”

( See Teach the controversies — YES ! Critical thinking — YES! for an earlier post here along these lines. )


  • Hakim, Joy. The Story of Science: Einstein Adds a New Dimension. Washington [D.C.]: Smithsonian Books, 2007.
  • Nash, Gary B., Charlotte A. Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn. History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. 1st ed. New York: A.A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1997.
  • Symcox, Linda. Whose History?: The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms. New York: Teachers College Press, 2002.


© 2008 James Anthony Whitson. Permission to use this material is granted subject to the condition that the source is cited, including the information in the following citations (1 for APA style [5th]; 2 for Chicago style A [15th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2008). ¿ against teaching the controversies (or “strengths and weaknesses”) ? Retrieved Month date, 20xx from http://curricublog.org/2008/06/10/why-called-students/.
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. “¿ Against Teaching the Controversies (or ‘Strengths and Weaknesses’) ?” (2008), http://curricublog.org/2008/06/10/why-called-students/ (accessed Month date, 20xx).

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