In response to the question: “What challenges and problems do you see in science education?”

By Steve Randak ’69
  March 25, 2004

• In response to the question: “What challenges and problems do you see in science education?”
Who Will Stand Up?

An address by Steve Randak ’69, Lafayette Jefferson Biology Teacher and National Biology Teacher of the Year, on the occasion of his being awarded an Honorary Doctorate

September 19, 2003

One challenge of science education is to encourage and enable students to see the World through the lens of science and through that same lens to see their place in the world.

Human destiny is intimately tied to reach of mind. The fulfilled expression of the human spirit is to explore the Universe embracing the ideas that there is no inherent boundary to our explorations and no limit to the power of the mind. If we assume less, we are robbed of our fullest potential and we threaten the future of our species.

Unfortunately, our evolutionary upbringing has restricted our mental reach. A fundamental characteristic of individual humans is that we are limited mentally and emotionally to a very small box of time and space. During the Paleolithic, we adapted to function for short-term benefit expressed in a generation or two, within a small circle of kith and kin, and within a limited geography. We are a tribal species. Our perspective remains tribal.

When the Neolithic environment began to unravel beneath the weight of agriculture, we did not change our focus. We remained shortsighted and tribal. As resources dwindled and the competition heated up, we became tribal warriors. When our numbers exploded from millions to billions, we became warrior nations.  As natural resources dwindled and too many people fought for too little land, the world became an increasingly hostile place.  Habitat by habitat we converted natural resources into personal wealth. Personal wealth unevenly distributed led to further conflict.

We have nearly reached the critical mass of our population size. We live in the shadow of climate disruption, new and old plagues, ethnic and religious hatred, and the greatest mass extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs. It’s time to seriously ask what shall we do with our future?

The great problems that emerge from the deliberation about how to shape the future come from the conflict between the short-term tribal perspective and the long-term transgenerational perspective that we construct from our shared scientific culture. We could easily decide about the future if we had only one perspective, but we don’t. We have two and they are in conflict. The ethical dilemma created by these two perspectives is compounded by a second problem, and that second problem relates powerfully to science education for it involves the teaching of evolution.

To survive, we must objectively study human nature and Nature in general. To successfully accomplish this study we must employ the idea of biological evolution. There is no idea that is more important to the understanding of life and no idea better supported. However, many students and parents see evolution as the most controversial and dangerous idea. Despite the importance of evolution, most high school biology teachers don’t teach it or teach it as a reduced separate unit, not as the central and unifying theme of biology. You can hardly blame them. There is little or no support to do otherwise. Where can we look for support? It is much easier to tell you where not to look.

Christian fundamentalists, tend to be politically conservative and very active. They fear that Darwin’s idea will unravel the moral and social fabric of America. They want to legislate the teaching of religious doctrine in the science classroom, first under the guise of "creation science" and more recently with the introduction of the concept of "intelligent design." Creation Science rejects almost all of modern science including the idea of old earth, the Big Bang, and transmutability of species. Intelligent Design followers accept more science but believe cells, organs, and organisms bear the unmistakable signs of being fashioned by a divine hand.  

President Bush went on record, during the Kansas School Board of Education debate in August of 1999, as favoring the balanced classroom treatment of Darwinian theory and creationist ideas. He also supports charter schools, public funding of private academies, and a maximum amount of autonomy for local school boards. If these last three initiatives had been in place in 1999, the Kansas debate over the inclusion of evolution in the state science standards would have been meaningless. Each school would have taught whatever bastardized version of biology it preferred. Science content and teaching would be localized and politicized to the point that many students would receive inferior instruction. State and national science standards would be meaningless.

You might think that the secular left is more likely to embrace Darwin’s idea, not necessarily so. Many liberals and radicals think the struggles between rival scientific ideas are decided by socio-political power, not evidence, and that male, white, Western science has been used to suppressed woman, minorities, and workers.

With political suspicion on the left and fear of social and moral chaos on the right, who will stand up for evolutionary biology and insist that it be taught in public schools without censorship or dilution?

It won’t be the Middle America. As the scientific worldview has become more authoritative and autonomous, it has created an avalanche of negative feelings and fears. The caring God of monotheism seems at odds with the excessive waste and harshness of evolution. I sometimes hear, "Why would God find it necessary to create and destroy species, habitats, and ecosystems millions of times over in order to make our contemporary world?" The jury-rigging and poor design found everywhere in organic forms, from the human prostate to the Panda’s thumb, suggest a god less immanent than the one hoped for by most humans. Mutations, the raw stuff of evolution, appear random, while evolution is reactive, and appears undirected. Most people of religious faith are unwilling to put God in the gaps or hide him in the chaos of quantum flux.

We are good at living with such contradictions as long as our self-importance remains untouched. But, Darwin’s light casts not the shadow of THE favored species created in a garden world, a world placed here for us to use as we choose, but rather Darwin’s light casts the shadow of just another branch of life connected to the rest of the tree all the way down to the roots. A branch that is ultimately subject to the same laws of pruning as all the rest.

The challenge is to get our species to understand the unpopular idea of evolution so we may have a more realistic picture of how we fit into the world and, thereby, increase our chances of surviving. Every challenge is an opportunity and this in no exception.

Biology is typically the last science course that most Americans take. It is controversial and that makes it interesting to students. This gives biology teachers a wonderful opportunity to emphasize the teaching of evolution, also the teaching of "The nature of science," using evolution as an example of good science.

Unfortunately, most biology classrooms are shrines to scientific facts. Too much time is spent memorizing information that is soon out-dated or trivial. Noble laureate in physics Murray Gell-Mann said it memorably when he stated; "Today’s science classrooms are like taking students to the world’s greatest restaurant and force-feeding them the menu."

It is more important today than ever to foster in students an understanding and an appreciation of science as a process. Much of the factual content generated by today’s science is destined for obsolescence. Students need to understand and value the process that generates knowledge, so that they won’t be overwhelmed or suspicious when new replaces old. They need to be aware that science is self-corrective and therefore, dynamic. They must understand that changing knowledge is what we expect from scientific endeavor.

It is essential for students to be able to distinguish Science from Non-science. Most fail to understand that science is consistent, natural, predictive, tentative, testable, and peer reviewed. Few students recognize that the playground idea of fairness has no place in science and that peer review is often hostile. I frequently hear them say, "It is only fair that creation science be included." Creationists want their voice to be heard. They want to skip the experimentation, the verification, the validation, and go right for the textbook inclusion.

Students also need to know that complexity and theory-laddeness are fundamental sources of scientific uncertainty. The complexity of reality makes it impossible to consider all the factors that might influence an event. We can never be sure we have accounted for all the alternative explanations, but this complexity is also a source of hopefulness, because science makes progress by sorting out the complexity.

Despite inherent uncertainty, science manages to produce ideas that are highly reliable, useful, and productive. That is because rather than insisting on absolutely truth, scientists use a variety of criteria to decide which of the competing ideas is best. They decide which explanation conforms to patterns in the data, which is most predictive and paramonious, and which handles best the anomalies and the exceptions.

I would like to direct my final comments to the role places like Wabash must play in helping meet the challenge of navigating through an uncertain future.

In Moravia 24,000 years ago, humans WHO were battling regional extinction, left evidence of a profound cultural shift. The first permanent village of about 100 people appeared. The switch away from the nomadic life of the smaller hunter-gather groups was a response to the climate’s cold grip at the height of the last ice age. These large and first permanent villages allowed for the development of experts. Specialists made warmer clothes, sharper tools, and stronger shelters. These people prospered and their way of life spread, despite the challenges of the environment. We stepped out of the Stone Age and we stride into the future on the shoulders of specialists. But, in our addiction to specialists, have we lost sight of the wider perspective?  And, if we have, what does this mean in the long run?

The Greek poet Archilocus wrote, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." As a kid growing up in Montana I knew this truth, but my fox was a coyote and my hedgehog was a porcupine. The coyote is a generalist. It is intelligent, resourceful, adaptive, and resistant to the uncertainties and irregularities of everyday life. The porcupine, on the other hand, is devoted to a single system of survival - sharp points. In its reliance on this highly specialized system, it waddles through life bumping into trouble, slow in its progress, but enthusiastic in its faith. The system-trusting porcupine is a specialist.

I now live in central Indiana within the limits of a fair sized town that is becoming a city. The coyote is my new neighbor. On cool nights, when the windows are open, his howl slips in with the breeze. In my entire life, I’ve only seen two or three porcupine, all were Montanans. The coyote, a newcomer to Indiana, was not here when I came to Wabash in 1963. 

Take the ancient insight of Archilocus and combine it with the modern ecological fact that coyotes have greatly expanded their range on this urbanized planet, while porcupines continue to lose ground in the face of habitat destruction and you can extrapolate an answer to the following question. Whose chances do you favor in the scramble to avoid extinction - the specialist or the generalist?

An education from Wabash creates a generalist. A liberal or general education frees us, empowers us, and prepares us for those moments that define our lives. Through it we become persistent and patient agents of cultural transmission and change within our democracy.

A liberal education permits us to have important conversations with those that came before, it encourages us to ask the big questions, and it helps us explore those big questions across a wide variety of knowledge and experience.

To track our way through an uncertain future, we will need a long list of specialists from every conceivable field. But, we will also need individuals who have a wider vision of the world, who cross-examine their own reality, who engage in real inquiry, and who are driven to ask the big questions like: "What is the Nature of Man?" and "What is our place in the World?"

It is the responsibility of places like Wabash to insure that we don’t run out of these thoughtful generalists.