Monday, October 29, 2007


Sharing a Little Discipline Among Friends

Elizabeth Redden's article, "Interdisciplinarity and the Science Classroom" at Inside Higher Ed, discusses the recent conference on "Promoting the Liberal Sciences: Science as Liberal Education," sponsored by the American Conference of Academic Deans and the Phi Beta Kappa Society. One topic was interdisciplinary approaches to teaching science.

[F]our faculty members from Pennsylvania's Muhlenberg College — instructors of biology, philosophy, anthropology and English — tackled one particularly tricky case study: the challenge of teaching evolution across the curriculum. Even putting aside today's culture wars, "there are obvious problems teaching evolution as an anthropologist because of the historical legacy my discipline has relative to evolution," said Christopher Kovats-Bernat, an associate professor at Muhlenberg.

Kovats-Bernat, for instance, referenced the "criminal anthropology" movement that dates to the 1870s — essentially the argument that by measuring the degree to which a person exhibits "ape-ish" physical features one can determine their propensity to commit crimes (as "crime is equated with violence and violence is equated with lesser animals," as Kovats-Bernat described the logic).
I'm not sure what the difficulty is. "Science is done by people. People will be stupid and will bend anything they put their hand to in service of their prejudices. The process of science helps discover and eliminate such problems, though it can take some time. Here is a good example of that from anthropology ... " Where's the problem?

And Bruce Wightman, an associate professor of biology, pointed to a number of other dubious movements based on natural selection (or, more commonly, a misinterpretation of Darwinian principles) — including the rise of social Darwinism and the catch phrase "survival of the fittest" (though, when it comes to natural selection, as Wightman points out, "whether you survive is irrelevant if you don't reproduce"), and the interest in eugenics and forced sterilization.
As we've seen just recently, even people who should know better can perpetrate this misunderstanding.

Especially when the current political and curricular debate over intelligent design is layered on top of this complex historical legacy, there's a tendency, Wightman said, for professors to retreat and teach the biological theory apart from its context. And yet, evolution is the most important idea biologists have ever introduced in terms of influencing broader thought, Wightman said.
Uh, oh ... this is beginning to sound discouragingly like "how do we sugarcoat the history of science so our students won't be likely to let mere facts mislead them?"

His own sophomore students, already with a year of introductory biology under their belt, may accept evolution as a statement of fact, but still, he said, "they're poorly equipped to talk about it.... This raises questions for us as educators."

"We have to start by admitting some level of failure. If two-thirds of Americans doubt evolution, that's a lot of college graduates out there," Wightman said, referencing a 2004 Gallup poll. "Can this problem be addressed only by better biology instruction?"
Certainly not. And the approach that the panelists and their institution take, where one teaches a course on human evolution and another teaches a literature course on Darwin's writings is a nice start. The feasibility of such arcane concepts as team teaching, cross-departmental collaboration, the use of guest lectures and requiring faculty members to stretch outside their specialties are beyond me but one thing I'm fairly sure of: teaching cardboard history of science where everyone is a hero and all ideas were good and pure ain't going to help in the long run.

Leaving clay feet around to be stumbled over is a sure way to lose hearts and minds.

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