like teaching Klingon in French class

Lawrence Krauss has written a Commentary in the New Scientist magazine, where he’s critical of what’s happening in Texas, “whose education board is now debating whether high-school texts should be required to discuss the ‘strengths and weaknesses of evolution’.”

Although Krauss is critical of the decision being contemplated, the main point of his article is to challenge the idea that decisions such as this one would be made by school board members who lack the proper expertise, simply on the basis of their popular election.

He uses this analogy:

Say that you are in charge of developing a state-wide high-school curriculum in French-language studies, and that you need the advice of a group of experts on how to put together the ideal programme. Is it better for officials to appoint these people, or for the public to vote on who they regard as the most attractive candidates for the job?

To put it another way, should you need minimum qualifications to be eligible to serve? Should you be required to know some French? Should you be disqualified if you openly profess that French is not a useful language, and that the curriculum should focus on Italian instead?

What role should popular democracy play in relation to technical expertise in the determination of curriculum? This is a long-standing problem in the US — one that I am not getting into here in this post.

Here, I only want to point out how the situation promised by the anti-evolutionists’ “Academic Freedom” legislation (part of the “strengths and weaknesses” campaign that includes the Texas textbook issue) would raise problems at a different level from what Krauss points to with his analogy. These laws, such as the bill just passed by the Louisiana legislature, and waiting now for the Governor’s signature, would create a situation in which individual teachers and students would be given the right to bring creationism into science classes and be protected by law against facing any kind of negative consequences (conceivably, the law could be invoked by a student in defense against being graded down for writing about creation instead of answering test questions in a way that shows an understanding of biology).

One version introduced in Florida was written to preclude even the state’s official science standards from curbing teachers who would choose to teach the creationists’ line on “strengths and weaknesses.”

So, recalling Krauss’s analogy, it’s not just like state level curriculum for teaching French being developed by people who don’t know any French, or even who believe in teaching Italian instead of French. This would be more like the situation where a teacher hired to teach French in French class decides instead to mix in grammar and vocabulary from Italian (or Klingon, maybe, to make the analogy more precise — since Italian is another real language, after all), without letting students know that what they’re learning is not really French, and with state law protecting the teacher against any kind of repercussions.

Reference: Krauss, Lawrence. “Commentary: Stop Creationists Undermining School Science.” New Scientist, June 18 2008, p. 56.

2 Comments

  1. C.Gresham
    Posted July 7, 2008 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Hello! Thumbs-up on your Klingon analogy. I submitted a letter to the Houston Chronicle in April regarding the Institute for Creationist Studies desire to offer a Masters of Science Education degree in Texas. They printed most of the letter but ommitted the following:

    “Despite ICR’s coy denials, it is clear that a primary reason for their application was the potential to have state-accredited creationists teaching religious pseudo-science in Texas’ public schools. In science class, kids should be taught science. Likewise, if my kids are enrolled in a Spanish class, I don’t want them to have a teacher who doesn’t like and doesn’t know Spanish, and secretly teaches them Klingon, lovely as the latter may be.”

    I suppose the Chronicle was worried that Klingon-speakers would be insulted by the association with creationists.

    Qapla’

  2. Kevin Currie
    Posted July 10, 2008 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    The example I always think of is that of global warming. If we were debating on whether to teach global warming as fact for an environmental science class, wouldn’t we want it argued by those with knowledge of climatology and possibly meteorology?

    Or would we want it done by people who ran as republicans or democrats and recieved the position via popular vote?

    It sounds elitist to suggest that the scientists are better equipped. And in some sense it is, in this very egalitarian and democractic body politic. Of course, such a thing might not even have to be required (that to decide on matters of curricula, you need to have detailed knowledge of that field). Even then, though, it is just good policy for school boards to yield in such decisions to experts (in the same way courts tend to do).


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