Humming Along to Happy Birthday, Dear Darwin

11 02 2008

Charles Darwin will be tomorrow’s birthday boy, just one year away from the Big Two-Oh-Oh! And my state’s science standards have a little present for him — I hope — that we’re wrapping (well, wrapping up!) yes, you guessed it, it’s the last public hearing to put Darwin’s infamous E-word into official public education policy, replacing the (supposedly less offensive to the usual suspects in our small but mouthy community of Christian fundamentalist hysterics) weasel wording, “biological changes over time.”

So in honor of that, and all that was actually freer in human thought AND belief a couple of hundred years ago than it seems now in this brave new millennium, I hereby reprint my first Darwin’s birthday column for Culture Kitchen.

by JJ Ross, Ed.D.
February 12, 2006

    If progressive American scholar Noah Webster were here, says Adam Cohen in the Times, he would be clamoring for two things: real public education (not mere school) and real public leadership (not mere politics).

    He was “never more eloquent than in his screeds against excessive partisanship.”

    “The party which, while in a minority, will lick the dust to gain the ascendancy,” [Webster] warned, “becomes, in power, insolvent, vindictive and tyrannical.”

    Public education is supposed to be the universal solution, not the universal problem. Maybe the problem isn’t so much our schools but our own ignorance — we can’t or won’t interrelate language, learning, liberty, and leadership as Webster did so well, 200 years ago. It seems we dutifully completed our own schooling yet cannot understand the meanings most important to our own lives, liberties and pursuits, never mind anyone else’s.

    And in our ignorance and impotence, schooled yet ill-equipped as self-governing citizens of our free union, we yell more than we think, point fingers, shove, stampede and then start shooting.

    Police Chief Nannette H. Hegerty of Milwaukee calls it “the rage thing.”
    “We’re seeing a very angry population, and they don’t go to fists anymore, they go right to guns,” she said. “A police department can have an effect on drugs or gangs. But two people arguing in a home, how does the police department go in and stop that?”

    It’s clear something big is missing; the education essential to independently enjoy one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness somehow isn’t reaching all its intended beneficiaries. Ignorance of ideas and poverty of purpose are combining to make a daunting social villain that threatens us all (far more threatening in my view, than ignorance of algebra or poverty of teachers.)

    But why, how, what to do? Seems we have our own ignorance problem then, about what public education means and how to make it work. Maybe we don’t even know what we mean by our own words anymore, like leadership and learning, or the “education” we say will secure the blessings of “liberty.”

    Charles Darwin, born 197 years old today, figured out that free thought is more art than science and less adamant than ignorance.

    “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, not those who know much, who so positively assert.”

    Might we expect educated citizens to answer limited knowledge with unlimited questions, from their own independent thinking, especially about what they know they don’t know? Would that make a fair working definition for third-millennium education? (What good are the answers we already know, after all, compared to the ones we seek next?)

    What do we mean by public education as national defense, if not what our school systems have been providing in its name?

    Can we imagine no better meaning for education than mere school?

    Cognitive scientist Dr. Howard Gardner described one possible path, practical ways for public schooling to construct a complete 12-year cross-disciplinary curriculum on truth, beauty and goodness – see The Disciplined Mind: What All Students Should Understand. His view of what education means in enlightened societies is reinforced by progressive educator Herbert Kohl, author of Discipline of Hope.

    Gardner’s latest thinking led him to contribute Harvard Business Review’s Number One Breakthrough Idea for 2006 which happens to connect creative synthesis of knowledge with world-class leadership, and evokes Charles Darwin (don’t you love it when a theme comes together?) himself as exemplar:

    A breakthrough idea is a springboard, not a perfect landing; a conversation provoker, not a definitive answer; a starter’s gun, not a finish line. It’s something that makes you stand up and take notice, not sit down and work out the application of a specific formula. . .
    designed to deliver sharp-pointed concepts that may pop open a whole new way of looking at a particular management challenge—or simply prod you into some long-overdue thinking about an issue.

    Pretending schooling and education are the same (or leadership and politics) as an excuse to change nothing about either, would be downright ignorant. If not the educated thinking and proposed solutions of Gardner and Kohl, then we can try something else; seems to me if we re-educate ourselves first about the meanings that are most important to us, we can’t go too far wrong.

    Back to the Times and the public crimes of ignorance and rage:

    ” . . .recognizing that the problems have deep roots, cities are also going beyond traditional law enforcement, trying to involve churches, schools and social service agencies. In Boston, the neighborhood sweeps are followed by work crews that repair potholes, trim trees and remove graffiti. . .Still, some of the problems are hard to address with tougher laws.
    . . .[if my] situation looks desperate, do I really have hope?” said [Chief Corwin of Kansas City]. “I think that ties into the anger. If the only thing I have is my respect, that’s what I carry on the street. If someone disrespects me, they’ve done the ultimate to me.”

    Widespread ignorance able to cause such rage isn’t over ABCs and 1-2-3s, nor the ACTs and SATs. And it’s not likely to be solved by even more rage (channeled into politics or otherwise) especially if our young are watching and learning well what we teach, just not in school . . .

    Darrel Stephens, Charlotte’s police chief:

    “It’s hard for people. . .to understand that they’re not likely to be a victim if they get along with their family members and neighbors and don’t live a high-risk lifestyle.”

    What we call public education apparently isn’t, but it could be, should be, somehow.




    20 responses

    11 02 2008

    Just wait’ll NEXT year! 😉

    Lincoln & Darwin – The Emancipators’ Legacies

    These two great men were born on the same day, in the same year: Sunday, February 12, 1809. This section is devoted to essays and articles that specifically address their legacies. Lincoln freed American slaves from physical servitude while Darwin freed the human mind from the bonds of supernatural dogma. The positive influences of their legacies are as relevant in the world today as they were in the 1800s. We invite you to send a brief statement or an essay of 1000 words or fewer, regarding their lives and relevance. . .

    by Robert J. Stephens

    In America we are aware that both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day, in the same year, February 12, 1809.

    As a result of this coincidence I was asked the following question during an interview on BBC in Shrewsbury, England (Darwin’s birthplace) on July 30, 2003 : “Since Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day, how do you deal with this obvious problem when you’re celebrating science and humanity on Darwin’s birthday?”

    I replied: “In my view, Feb. 12, 1809 was a very good day for our planet because Lincoln became the great emancipator of the slaves in America, and Darwin became the great emancipator of the human mind, so they both deserve to be celebrated!”

    . . .Together their actions represent a major step forward in the acquisition of freedoms for the entire human family. The magnitude of these accomplishments by visionary men, born on the same day, in the same year, gives their achievements a unique resonance, and enormous benefits have accrued to humankind ever since.

    Today both men are recognized around the world for the ongoing positive effect their efforts have had on developing the ethics of progressive modern thought.

    11 02 2008

    What happened at the hearing might make one question whether human evolution of reason is as far advanced as we like to insist. . .

    Current standards do require teaching some evolution, even though they don’t use that word. It is used, though, in most text books.

    The majority in attendance said they wanted evolution taught along with creationism and intelligent design.

    “No one can say with certainty that evolution is a fact,” said Lee Hyatt, a 20-year-old college student from Leesburg. “To be scientifically proven, it has to be observable and no one was around 6,000 years ago. We want students exposed to all theories so they can become critical thinkers.”

    12 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    It’s a good day to consider becoming a “Friend of Darwin” —


    12 02 2008

    The Gardner breakthrough idea link at Harvard Business Review is behind a subscriber-only archive wall now, but in essence, it explains the error made by the adamant young man at the science standards hearing yesterday:

    1. The Synthesizing Leader
    Howard Gardner

    The ability to decide which data to heed, which to ignore, and how to organize and communicate information will be among the most important traits of business executives in this century.

    Isn’t that a good definition of being a critical thinker in any endeavor or discipline, not only science or business or politics, but everything large and small in our lives? Isn’t this what all our discussions and pitched battles boil down to? — which data to heed and which to ignore, and how well we communicate that information . . .

    12 02 2008

    Cool link Nance! I went from there right to the Beagle Project blog and it made me wonder if Congress and all the state capitols will be observing Darwin Day next year, with fanfare at least equal to the National Day of Prayer?
    And if not, why not — something to think about before voting this fall! 😉

    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    And FL brings up the rear once again:


    16 02 2008

    We’ll see on Tuesday if “education” is about education or repression, I guess. Meanwhile, this is the worst educated public I can imagine!

    While the vast majority of scientists consider evolution to be backed by strong evidence, nearly two-thirds of those polled were skeptical.

    Twenty-nine percent said evolution is one of several valid theories. Another 16 percent said evolution is not backed up by enough evidence. And 19 percent said evolution is not valid because it is at odds with the Bible.

    16 02 2008

    “Valid”: I do not think that word means what they think it means!

    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    “We don’t determine our science by polls,” said John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, a group that supports Biblical values. But in this case, the poll results are relevant because “policymakers need to be responsive at some level to parents.”


    This was the scary part, to me.

    Doesn’t Mr. Stemberger sound oh so reasonable?

    Of course scientific decisions are not based on polls. But we’ve got to pander to the parents, what with the next election coming up, doncha know. . .


    16 02 2008

    Or – poll results are what count in politics, not science!
    Education politics included.
    Which means homeschool freedom is directly at risk from this Believers “Ignorance in Numbers” campaign to take over public education (not just taking over homeschool education politics). . .
    Evolved homeschoolers had better be doing our homework.

    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    The Believers have been in power for the whole time though. This is the chance for the “E” word to be used in science classes in FL. As I think many Rs are getting more testy as the upcoming loss in the fall nears, the Believers may get more riled up as they lose their grip on ps science.

    OTOH, it matters not. The kids still end up believing, at the end of the day. No matter what is taught or tested.


    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    Or is that a bad assumption on my part? Was there some time in FL’s history when evolution was taught in ps science class?


    16 02 2008

    It’s not “evolution” per se but scientific thinking and attitudes that need to be taught and learned, and internalized and then integrated in our public policy processes, or else public policy might as well be decided with a Ouija board and a couple of candles, in a trailer on a dirt road.

    If two-thirds of the public didn’t get it and don’t have it now, then obviously *whatever* the schools are teaching isn’t working.

    OTOH, here’s a somewhat more encouraging perspective in the news?

    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    Unfortunately, the two-thirds of the public you mention are the ones trying to figure out how to use enough to weasel words to get around the plain meaning of a basic scientific word. And to cover their own butts.

    Sigh. . .


    16 02 2008

    And who seem to think BEING a majority of two-thirds, means that they can simply vote the rest of us wrong.

    16 02 2008

    Which of course, is why the enlightened, civilizing concept of “public education” was conceived in the first place as critical to national defense and the public welfare. . .

    16 02 2008
    Nance Confer

    How’s that working so far? 🙂


    16 02 2008

    LOL – I get it, that was a good one. Perfect timing too. (Does everyone else realize that Nance just quoted a Dr Phil-ism back to me?)

    16 02 2008

    We talk so much about Howard Gardner’s Five Minds the World Needs Now. None of those was The Mind That Denies Modern Reality, the better to legislate ancient tribal codes and prophesy of doom? [shudder]

    . . .in the future, we need to cultivate five kinds of minds if we want to be successful asa nation and, more important, as a world. Those minds include:

    . A disciplined mind, that can think well and appropriately in the major disciplines;

    . A synthesizing mind, that can sift through a large amount of information, decide what is important, and put it together in ways that make sense for oneself and for others;

    . A creative mind, that can raise new questions, come up with novel solutions, think outside the box;

    . A respectful mind, that honors the differences among individuals and groups, and tries to understand them and work productively with them; and

    . An ethical mind, that thinks, beyond selfish interests, about the kind of worker one aspires to be, and the kind of citizen that one should be.


    Institutional schooling has taught our fellow citizens so much about duty and failure and tedium, conforming their own internal life to external demands, that most inevitably become workaday parents and teachers (and voters and politicians) who simply follow and enforce and further entrench society’s rules and restrictions, rather than rethinking them. They pass all this on in turn. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be . . .and they soldier on.

    There is relentless social pressure to conform one’s beliefs to the congregation AND classroom, in both Church AND State:


    Churches that arose out of the new testament era were eventually institutionalized by the help of the Emperor Constantine. As a result, a hierarchy was established and the rule and the governing power went out of the hands of the ordinary people and into the hierarchy. I think a similar comparison can be made in early American education as schools have become an institution, individualism has in many ways gone out the door.

    Yes, good example of what I was thinking about personal beliefs versus organized church hierarchies. (Emperor Constantine also was an example of church and state combining to rule? Imagine trying to fight THAT off to keep your own individual identity!)

    Another book I read recently is called “A Sideways Look at Time” in which the author suggests the Christian patriarchal church literally standardized and prescribed the structure of time — hours of prayer every day, days of worship every week, months of the calendar every year– to control not the clock but the people. The idea was that the much more humanly satisfying “wild time” of children and women made pagans ungovernable.
    Lots to think about!


    19 02 2008

    So today is the Latest Big Day for Florida.

    Nance and I will keep you updated through the day. Meanwhile, you might want to check out the famous “Clergy Letter” from the Dover controversy, which I just found in a March 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article, while reading coverage of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting in Boston this week.

    As the intellectual and educator I have always been, this is the line that moves me to action:
    “To reject this truth or to treat it as ‘one theory among others’ is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.”


    He and his friends started sending the clergy letter out nationally and eventually gathered more than 10,000 signatures. “I wanted to demonstrate to the American people that the dichotomy that was set before them was a false one,” he says. “They didn’t have to choose. They could be perfectly religious — or not — and still accept modern science and evolution.”

    Once they reached the 10,000-signature goal, Mr. Zimmerman’s group looked for a way to publicize the letter. They decided this year to create a national holiday, called Evolution Sunday, on February 12 . . .

    The event was an effort to “elevate the national debate on this topic, instead of having people just shout at each other, You’re going to hell,” says Mr. Zimmerman.

    The Discovery Institute, however, discounts the clergy letter. “Religion is irrelevant to the issue,” says Robert L. Crowther II, director of communications for the institute. The beliefs of clergy members, he says, do not alter the evidence for intelligent design in DNA and biological cells.


    Within the community of Christian believers there are areas of dispute and disagreement, including the proper way to interpret Holy Scripture.

    While virtually all Christians take the Bible seriously and hold it to be authoritative in matters of faith and practice, the overwhelming majority do not read the Bible literally, as they would a science textbook. Many of the beloved stories found in the Bible — the Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark — convey timeless truths about God, human beings, and the proper relationship between Creator and creation expressed in the only form capable of transmitting these truths from generation to generation.

    Religious truth is of a different order from scientific truth. Its purpose is not to convey scientific information but to transform hearts.

    We the undersigned, Christian clergy from many different traditions, believe that the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist.

    We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator.

    To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

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