Saturday, September 6, 2008

Science, dogma, and the American Way

The bishop has often compared our churches to a herd of horses grazing in a pasture. It is a beautiful picture to see them all grazing together contentedly. Everything seems to be going fine. But then there are always those who try to reach across the fence and get something they shouldn't have. These have to be brought back into the group. If they aren't, they will soon break down the fence, and then there is trouble. Not only will they slip out of the field, but they will open the way for the rest to get out as well.
quoted from the Family Life (February, 1981)
in The Amish in Their Own Words, p 370
Compiled by Brad Igou

If you want to explain science as a process, you are going to run into questions about faith or religion or natural or some other vague word spouted off by an adolescent whose vocabulary does not yet include the (very useful) word "dogma."

I can play it safe:
This is science class. Science deals with the observable universe, and it has limits. Religion seeks other kinds of truths and uses different rules. Science and religion are separate disciplines that serve independent functions. p.s. Go ask your mother

That usually quiets the truly curious, though the thoroughly evangelical may still be a bit pesky when evolution is the topic (which is pretty much always in biology).

I hesitate to give the science/religion dichotomy speech, though, because it's not true, and lying to kids in a class designed to teach them a way to discern what's true about our universe should earn me a handbasket to hell.

Science does lead to questions about origins and meaning, and we fail as teachers if we do not distinguish scientific reasoning from dogma.

Now, I am not about to challenge specific acts of dogma in science class, not directly (Holy See, Báb, Mohammad, Enki, Jesus, Abraham, Tlaloc, An, the Holy Ghost, Shangd, Moses, the Protogenoi, Bhagavan, many authorities, so little time), nor am I going to question any child's acceptance of whatever dogma happens to rule his clan.

I am not going to pretend, however, that science does not challenge what most students believe.

And I am taking it one step further this year.

I am explicitly telling them there are going to be times when what
what we know through science contradicts what they know through dogma.

Which brings me to the parable. It is told by a bishop. It is a tale designed to help the parish stay true to dogma.

You could apply the same parable to public education. Students are a lot safer if they stick with the herd and keep away from the edges. They are more likely to earn good grades. They will, on average, earn more money than those students who do poorly in school. They certainly aren't going to break any fences.

If you're looking for Socrates, for Galileo, for Newton, for Einstein, for Feynman, may as well find the hole in the fence and start walking.

I'm not trying to create any Einsteins in my class. I'm just trying to get them through one more year believing there might be something outside this particular pasture.

Top photo is one room schoolhouse in Lancaster, Pennsylvania,
the bottom photo is little girl at a horse farm, both from the
National Archives collection

Opening quote from The Amish in Their Own Words, compiled by Brad Igou
Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa 1999


CB said...

Life's hairy today, just wanted to say egg-celent.

Rosemary in Utah said...

Just found your 'blog--
I read this morning that S. Palin's dad was a science teacher (!?) and "Science teacher" showed up in a google.
Enjoy it very much, it's now in my "Favorites", will read regularly!

doyle said...

@Clay: hang in there, and thoughts are with you and your clan

@Rosemary: thanks for the words. It will be interesting to see how Palin's views on science education are shaped in the coming weeks.

Chris said...

You seem happier. Good.

doyle said...

I'm congenitally happy, and I'm back in the classroom.

If I weren't congenitally happy I'd have given up before I finished adolescence.

I'm even happy when I'm cranky.