In 1981, the State of Arkansas passed into law a bill that demanded that if evolution was taught in state-supported schools, then something called “Creation Science” — aka the book of Genesis read literally — had also to be taught. This happened during the interregnum between Bill Clinton’s first time in the governor’s mansion and when he regained it two years later. The bill was debated for all of half an hour by the legislature and signed by the then-governor, a man as unqualified for the post as he was surprised at getting it.
Obviously this law violated the First Amendment separation of church and state, and so the ACLU swung into action to get it declared unconstitutional. After a two-week trial, the federal judge ruled precisely that and so that was the end of the Arkansas “Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Scient Act,” as it was called. I was one of the witnesses for the plaintiff, called in to testify on the history and philosophy of science, showing that whereas evolutionary theory is science, creation science is not science but religion.
Among the other expert witnesses was the late Stephen Jay Gould, the well-known paleontologist and popular-science writer, and the late Langdon Gilkey, the most eminent liberal theologian of his day. But far more impressive than any of us was a local, high school biology teacher. I remember sitting in the courtroom as he testified. The assistant attorney general was trying to tie him into knots over some technical point in evolutionary biology. Finally, the man blurted out: “Mr. Williams, I’m not a scientist. I’m a science educator. I love science, I really do. And I love my students. My job is to take the science and teach it to my students. I am not a leading researcher. I am an educator, and I have my pride and professional responsibilities. And I just can’t teach that stuff [meaning creationism] to my kids.” Sometimes it is just a privilege to listen to other human beings and recognize that they are better people than you are. (I am quoting from memory. I have just looked at the actual transcript of the trial. The teacher’s words are even more moving that I remembered.)
I have been thinking about that man a lot since I wrote my piece on why I am weeping for Florida State University. In that post, I made the point that there is something seriously out of kilter in an institution, claiming to be a place of higher education, that lavishes funds on the football program but starves the academic side. In passing, I made reference to one of the very good things that is happening on the FSU campus,: the project to upgrade the teaching of future school teachers of mathematics and science.
A number of people asked me about this and so I dug into it a little more. Based on a very successful program at the University of Texas at Austin, it is humming along nicely now, although as you might expect there are all sorts of territorial tensions as science ed is taken from the College of Education and put in the College of Arts and Sciences. (I should say that the dean of the College of Ed is one of the leaders in this project, and some members of her faculty are deeply involved, so it is not simply plunder of one part of the university by another part. Anything but, in fact.)
The relevance of the Arkansas teacher struck home when I looked at some of the figures. Get this. In 2007 (the last year for which there are available figures) within the State of Florida 1,295 people were hired to teach mathematics. Of those, only 394 had qualifications in teaching mathematics. Within the state, 1,154 people were hired to teach science. Of these, 282 had science qualifications. In other words, and I can attest anecdotally to this at my kids’ high school, most of the people being hired in Florida to teach mathematics and science aren’t qualified. And note that these are the numbers of people being hired, not necessarily the numbers needed.
In other words, we are simply not getting into our classrooms people like the Arkansas teacher who just loved science (including mathematics) for its own sake. Or if we are, it is purely by chance. We are not getting people who were themselves so thrilled by astronomy or biology or algebra (and there are such people) that they wanted to do it at university — and then who wanted to go back into the classroom and teach it to others. We are getting people who for various reasons are taking the job of teaching mathematics and/or science, but who have no background training. And of course, not necessarily any passion or deep commitment to science.
That Arkansas teacher was on the stand because, as the great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky used to say: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, let’s teach about the cell and the parts of the plants. Who gives a damn about whether everything started six thousand years ago or fifteen billion years ago?
This, I have discovered (and the ultimate credit goes back to Texas, which, God knows has got its own troubles with Creationists) is one of the big things that the science-educator professors are trying to address on my campus. They are now insisting that all would-be science teachers have a joint major, one in education and the other in a science or mathematics. This means that the undergraduates are having to take a lot more science and mathematics than before and that some of what they are taking has to be upper-level. No more meeting the qualifications with just first and second year courses.
What our people are trying to do is to get our students hooked on mathematics or science. Make them identify with the field and want to contribute to it — if not as researchers then as teachers of the next generation. Make them care about mathematics or physics or chemistry or biology for their own sakes. Then send them out into the world.
Will any of this work? Ten or 20 years down the road, will we look back and think it a success? I guess no one knows for sure, but it does seem very much worthwhile. It may be that what I am telling readers is stuff that they know very well. I can only say that after 45 years as a professor and with five kids having gone through high school, I am finding how little I know about educating educators. If there are other things I should know, feel free to contact me, and periodically I will make sure that it all gets passed on. I don’t know about you, but the last year’s battle in Washington to get any kind of health-care bill passed has left me really depressed. It is good to know that some things in America are working for the benefit of those to whom we have such great obligations.