I'm glad I don't teach science!
When it comes to assembling a package of standards, social studies can certainly be a political football, but I'm glad I don't teach science. Kansas's battle over evolution and intelligent design is back in the news again.
Ed Zurga for The New York Times
KANSAS CITY, Kan., July 29 — God and Charles Darwin are not on the primary ballot in Kansas on Tuesday, but once again a contentious schools election has religion and science at odds in a state that has restaged a three-quarter-century battle over the teaching of evolution.
Less than a year after a conservative Republican majority on the State Board of Education adopted rules for teaching science containing one of the broadest challenges in the nation to Darwin’s theory of evolution, moderate Republicans and Democrats are mounting a fierce counterattack. They want to retake power and switch the standards back to what they call conventional science.
I just finished reading The Knowledge Deficit by E. D. Hirsch, who is probably the nation's foremost proponent of having a national core curriculum. He believes that teachers across the nation should all be teaching the same things at the same time in the same grades in things like history, math, and science. This way, as kids move from one grade to the next, from one school to the next, or from one state to the next, everyone should still be on the same page. I think that idea has merit, but even Hirsch concedes that it is very difficult to get agreement on what should be taught, and then when it should be taught. Obviously, just doing it within a state isn't that easy either.
In Minnesota we have the Minnesota Academic Standards. I've been told by teachers in other disciplines that their standards are reasonable, but the ones for high school American history are ridiculous, and we owe that to another battle between liberals and conservatives. In the first draft, the conservatives had their way, and I actually thought those standards weren't too bad. But, of course, liberals didn't like them, and they began to make a lot of noise. The end product of this battle was a compromise in which they put everything in that everybody wanted, so we are expected to teach an amount of material to our kids that can only be described as massive.
If I were to try to teach everything that my state government is now telling me to teach, I don't think anyone would learn very much, because there would be no time to cover anything in any depth. I would probably end up with a lot of kids not even knowing who we fought in the Revolutionary War, or which war had to do with slavery. Oh, we'd cover those things alright, but we wouldn't able to spend much time on them, because the state standards tell us that we also have to make sure to cover things like the differences between Aztec and Mayan architecture.
E. D. Hirsch advocates making sure that our kids are taught "taken for granted" knowledge. For example, if we make a reference to the Civil War, we take it for granted that people know that is the war that ended slavery. We assume that we don't have to explain that. I think what Hirsch is advocating here makes sense. It's too bad that ideologues on both the left and the right are so intent on pushing their agendas that deciding what "taken for granted" knowledge is becomes a political war. Something is wrong when the curriculum has to change everytime somebody new wins an election. I think the liberals go too far in some of the things they push to be taught in American history, and I suspect the conservatives are probably going too far in Kansas.
My own political views are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum. No one would ever have to worry about me pushing my views on my students, though, because I'm never very confident that I'm correct. I almost always see validity in the arguments of people who disagree with me. True liberals and true conservatives never seem to have that problem. That probably means that a lot of them are either very smart or very stupid. I know which way I'd vote on that one.