On the state of American (well, Idahoan) education

As part of a bet, a friend of mine in the department put the following question on the final for her introductory biology class:

Plans are living organisms – True, or false?

9.5% of her students answered FALSE. For added perspective, 12% forgot to bring a pencil to the final exam.

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American unreason

Catching up on my podcasts after two weeks dominated by my prelims (I passed!): last week’s Bill Moyers Journal features Susan Jacoby, whose new book, The Age of American Unreason contends that much of what is wrong with U.S. politics stems from the rise of anti-intellectualism in American culture. My reaction is pretty much the same as it was to Lynn Truss’s grammar manifesto Eats, Shoots & Leaves – I’m always sympathetic to fellow nerds’ disgust with the inability of the unwashed masses to comprehend how important [insert my interest here] is, but I worry that complaining about it sounds a little crank-y.

For instance, I could care less about Jacoby’s carping over the increasing use of the term “folks” to mean “people” in politicians’ speeches. Language and usages change, especially in English. But I do think she makes a valid point about the importance of an informed citizenry for democracy. I often wonder whether the current debates about judicial power, Presidential authority, &c are shaped by public ignorance of the Constitution and the way government is supposed to work. Or maybe I’m just a snotty liberal who assumes that everyone who disagrees with me must be stupid or misinformed or both.

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Christian schools: win Ben Stein’s money

In the wake of the victory for common sense that was the Dover Trial and Michael Lynch’s trouncing of their only paper to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, the Intelligent Design movement has refocused its efforts on propaganda. Specifically, the documentary Expelled, in which none other than Ben Stein will apparently argue that evil atheist scientists have “expelled” ID “theory” from its rightful place in the science curriculum. I first heard about Expelled when the New York Times reported that Richard Dawkins and NCSE’s Eugenie Scott were interviewed for the film under false pretenses.

Now, ERV (SA Smith) points out a scheme to bribe Christian schools to take their students to Expelled. How pathetic is that? The producers aren’t even sure that their assumed core demographic (Christian teens) will show up to this movie if they don’t institute “mandatory field trips.” It’s also maddening to me: I went to a Mennonite high school, where I actually got a pretty good grounding in biology, and where I took the class that inspired me to pursue graduate study of evolution and ecology (Thanks, Mr. Good!). Which is to say that, even though many do, there’s no reason that Christian schools have to teach pseudoscience. This Expelled initiative tries to provide exactly such a reason.

An aside: Who exactly is making Expelled, anyway? According to the Times article, the production company that arranged the interviews with Dawkins and Scott called itself Rampant Films – but it turned into Premise Media when the real nature of the project was revealed. Premise Media has a website [mind the creaky flash intro on your way in], the contents of which are concerned only with Expelled. Anyone want to bet it’s a front for the Discovery Insitute?

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Open-source journal on evolution education

Via Wired Science: the new journal Evolution: Education and Outreach aims to connect working biologists with elementary and secondary science teachers to provide a resource for teaching about evolution. And all its articles will be freely available online.

The inaugural issue includes an essay by John N. Thompson, one of the leading names in my own sub-field of coevolutionary ecology, which points out that the popular press frequently fails to use the word “evolution” when it covers such concrete examples as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and host shifts by disease organisms. I’ve noticed this myself, and I think it’s a very relevant issue: without calling evolution by its name, idiotic disconnects like the one between President Bush’s “teach the controversy” position and his spending for bird-flu preparedness aren’t as obvious.

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NSA: all the trappings of academia, none of the logic

The New York Times Magazine’s “College Issue” is running a
none too critical story about New Saint Andrews College, the pseudo-accredited hyperconservative school that has been trying to take over my present hometown for years. Highlights include NSA founder/eminence grise Doug Wilson saying that (1) he’d rather vote for Jefferson Davis than George W. Bush; and (2) rather than “woodenly” following the Old Testament commandment to execute homosexuals, “you might exile some … depending on the circumstances and the age of the victim.”

More revealing than those soundbites, though, is a comment from an NSA alumnus: “We want to be medieval Protestants.” Anyone who knows her Church history, of course, will immediately recognize this oxymoron: the Medieval Age of Europe is notably defined by the lack of Protestants. The Reformation didn’t start until well into the Renaissance (Martin Luther tacked up his 95 Theses in 1517). The use of the term “medieval Protestants” therefore implies a rejection of the cultural, philosophical, and intellectual movements that allowed Protestantism, and the Calvinist tradition with which New Saint Andrews allies itself, to arise in the first place.

Needless to say, the Times reporter let this whopper pass without comment.

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