Freedom to Teach

by Tiberius Gracchus on February 10, 2016

Freedom of SpeechI have a memory, one of my few from my early school years, of a Science lesson. It was one in which we students were encouraged to make a speech about a subject of particular interest to us; I think we were being graded on our presentation skills. I got up and spoke for about five minutes, with some enthusiasm, about the Big Bang Theory. I was excited and fascinated by the origins of the Universe, having read about the subject in National Geographic magazine. I must have been about eleven at the time.

Another kid, a good friend of mine, stood up and spoke impromptu after me; it wasn’t often that these presentations prompted rebuttal. He made some powerful counter-arguments to my speech, presenting the case for what he called Intelligent Design.

My friend’s speech shocked me at the time. I didn’t know how anything that I had said could prove so controversial. I hadn’t felt that there were religious implications or counterbalancing scientific ideas. I had simply accepted what I had read in National Geographic as undisputedly true

I carried forward the need to accept that just because something is written up in a national journal doesn’t necessarily make it valid or fact! 

  I draw your attention to the recently ejected State Senate Bill 83.  

 This highly commendable initiative, put forward by Senator Jeff Monroe, R-Pierre, set out to encourage freedom of debate in the classroom. Specifically, it would have allowed teachers in Science to present balanced arguments about the full range of scientific questions from those concerning the potential for human involvement in environmental change to human cloning. The fact that it has been effectively shot down by opposition from school boards and the educational establishment is a damaging attack on free speech. This action impoverishes the education of our children, and reeks of the sort of micromanagement that seriously demoralizes educators. 

 Teachers are supposed to challenge students’ minds, not demand intellectual conformity; to do otherwise would not only do our young people themselves a great disservice, but spell the end of innovation. Part of this educative process should involve exposing students to the genuine debates that exist about a range of scientific issues. Every generation (in general, and especially the scientific establishment it seems) may feel that they have it “all figured out”. But it is arrogant to assume always that there are clearly defined right answers to broad questions of societal debate, even concerning questions relating to evolution and the origins of the Universe. We abandoned Einstein’s widely supported concept of the “Static Universe,” to give just one example. 

 Science is NOT about certainty, however the opponents of this Senate Bill clearly believe that it is, on a whole range of fundamental questions, questions that go to the heart of our core beliefs and indeed to the sound running of the economy. They believe them so strongly that the First Amendment has effectively been cut to ribbons in our classrooms; many great teachers go silent for fear of administrative reprisal if they seek to promote discussion and debate. Others are demoralized and seek alternative career paths.  

 What is demoralizing to many in South Dakota is the way in which the ideas of social conservatives, in particular, seem to be targeted for elimination in our schools. It is particularly dangerous when one school of thought is singled out in this way as somehow being too extreme or even “corrupting” to young people. Well respected (and by no means conservative) Professor of Political Theory at Queen’s University, Colin Farrelly, has commented on the deeply ingrained negative views that many of his students have developed about conservative ideology, ideas that stem from a lack of real engagement. “As citizens our students will be expected to engage with conservatives,” he writes, “and so, at the least, they should develop an understanding of (if not an appreciation for the potential value of) conservatism.” 

 I declare that public education should not be simply about delivery of a body of (tightly censored) information and so-called “right answers,” but should be more concerned with providing our children with the ability to think and argue for themselves, thereby preparing them to play an adult part in American society and to fulfill their civic duty. That societal and civic duty is closely entwined with the most American of virtues, which is the right to dissent, and to debate in forum. Please for a moment picture in your mind Norman Rockwell’s painting entitled “Freedom of Speech”. For me, the image of the common man, eyes slightly lifted above the horizon, boldly speaking his mind among his peers, superbly sums up my feeling about the importance of fostering an intellectually courageous youth, as opposed to tomorrows breed of trained victims of deceitful establishment propaganda. In American society we know and are ready to accept that a winning intellectual argument can be delivered, with no lesser value, by a humble beggar, who speaks the truth, as opposed to by an Ivy League elitist who may propagate falsehood.  

 Without any desire to shock those neighbors that abhor mention of religious belief or any utility derived from it, I feel the need to quote from John, Chapter 9, and the verse that ends “…whereas I was blind, but now I see.” It is a story that underlines the reality of human fallibility, and the ability to change your mind. I would contend that this powerful statement of humility is equally applicable to people of no faith, or of other faiths, as well as Christians. And it applies even to our most brilliant scientists, who also potentially suffer from blindness, just like the rest of us. Indeed, a humble nature implies that we are comfortable with our inevitable lack of certainty about so many things. As Socrates said, “The only true wisdom is to know you know nothing”. We all “endeavor” to know, but can never achieve true knowledge. Or, as Isaac Newton is reputed to have put it, when looking back on his scientific career: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” Wisdom only comes by way of a willingness to doubt. We want to instill this kind of wisdom in the students of South Dakota.  

 The question I have for the opponents of the SB-83 is, “Why do you fear debate?”  

 Our various School Districts already control the body of knowledge that you must be able to command in order to be able to graduate, so what is the harm of allowing proper evidence based argument of some areas of scientific understanding. To allow our teachers to stimulate such debate, where it is appropriate, and also advances educational objectives, cannot be understood as forcing any personal acceptance of any particular viewpoint on the part of our students. That would actually be the standpoint of those who compel students to complete assignments under mandatory headings such as that, currently in existence, which requires them to uncritically set out the scientific underpinnings of the Big Bang Theory. 

 Quite to the contrary, it encourages students to think hard about core issues and empowers them to come to their own conclusions, as free Americans. To take any other course is to follow the part taken by the rulers in ancient Athens, who condemned Socrates as “an evil-doer and corrupter of the youth,” when in reality, Socrates just encouraged his students to think skeptically, by the process of challenging debate. 

 The Bill, which the South Dakota State Senate has now conclusively sidelined, sought to preserve the idea of the value of the teacher as the initiator of discussion that Socrates embodied. And we should not be afraid of this. If we prevent genuine intellectual discourse, argument, and classroom debate, as opponents of the Bill so passionately sought to do, we risk ending up with a classroom that will one day be taught by a computer that is “APPROVED by the School District”. And in this I smell the repugnant stench of the world that George Orwell described in “1984”. The opponents of the bill are fostering and supporting an institutionalized distrust for teachers.  

 Of course, the opponents of SB-83 argued that the proposed legislation was merely a subversive way to facilitate the presentation of Intelligent Design arguments in our high school classes. They want to lead us to believe that Senator Monroe, and the many who supported him, are guilty of some kind of conspiracy theory to undermine received scientific wisdom.  

 But these arguments are very far from convincing. Just for starters, it should surely be acknowledged that there is absolutely no mention of any idea whatsoever connected with religion in the text of the Bill. Indeed, the only people who have brought up the issue of Intelligent Design are those who oppose Senator Monroe’s proposal. 

 And why should issues connected with science not be subject to discussion and argument, as are questions about our history. There are those who suggest, for instance, that the Spanish American War was about sugar, and hence about America’s economic interest, as opposed to a reaction to justified outrage in the face of Spanish Government atrocities. Or that a policy of accommodation, rather than strength, lay behind the downfall of Communism. My belief is that those historians are wrong, but I encourage debate and analysis of the area. I support the right of those historians to make their case. 

 And I believe strongly that debate is strongly needed in the Science classroom, just as it is in the History classroom. Only ignorance will reign supreme without it. I do not believe that, just because a possible ‘rogue’ teacher may pop up and corrupt our children’s minds, as Socrates was accused of, we should condemn our students to a factory style, debateless, and ultimately intellectually bankrupt education. 

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Eldon February 10, 2016 at 10:38 PM

Should we only teach what to think, or should we also teach how to think. Certainly good science will help students learn how to think.


Alan February 17, 2016 at 9:17 PM

The state dictates what to teach, e.g. standards, etc. Teachers determine how to teach. That is Education 101, unless you are a private school. In that case, you can teach whatever you want. Using your flawed logic, I am a teacher and I believe the Holocaust didn’t occur and I push that hogwash on to my students. Is that intelligent debate? Or, what if we ignore the plight of Native Americans, Japanese Americans during World War 11, African Americans, etc.? No, we do not allow individual teachers to teach whatever fits their personal belief system.


TIBERIUS GRACCHUS February 18, 2016 at 7:13 AM

I appreciate the comment. The curriculum is set and must be taught to the extent that exams can be passed. In your scenario you have a Holocaust denier teaching 10th grade history who then opens up debate as to the merits if the Holocaust actually occurred. Do you think that delusional professor would prove an effective argument against the contents of the history book on the students desk or the accumulated knowledge of the school system on the Holocaust? Of course, we certainly hope this bill is more then a vehicle for the most intellectually suspect as opposed to a tool for the most intellectually gifted.

When you label what you’re debating as either intelligent or non-intelligent is unfair. How the debate was handled is the best way to judge it.

You cannot ignore the curriculum. When I went through public school there was ample review of social history and injustice. I also remember nobody enjoying history class.


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