Education intelligently designed

October 20, 2005|By MICHAEL SILBERSTEIN

I have a much bigger ax to grind than whether "intelligent design" should be taught in biology courses. What the controversy about teaching intelligent design really teaches us is that our educational system has become a pawn in the culture wars and suffers greatly for it.

The American educational system is geared not toward critical thinking and intellectual autonomy but toward socialization and an absurd politically correct juggling of the various world views that make up the combatants in our culture wars.

Both sides of the intelligent design debate trumpet themselves as the champions of critical thinking and free speech. The pro-design battle cry is "teach the controversy" - for example, critically evaluate Darwinism - and the American Civil Liberties Union is primarily concerned with maintaining the separation of church and state. Both are wonderful sentiments, in my opinion.

The real driving divide here is that each side fears the world view of the other, feeling hunkered down against another inquisition, be it scientific or religious. The anti-intelligent design side fears that pseudo-creationism will fuel a new dark age in which America is a theocracy, not a democracy. The pro-design side feels that America is becoming "de-Christianized" by scientific secularism and cultural pluralism.

The pro-design camp fears that when teaching Darwinism, biology teachers are implicitly, if not explicitly, inculcating their children with naturalistic secular humanism. The design foes are not necessarily atheists - many are believers - but they are children of the Enlightenment, the historical movement that brought us both the Age of Reason and the age of democracy. They see how much science, reason and democracy have improved our lot, and they fear going back to a time when superstition, ignorance and the divine right of autocrats ruled the day.

Many of America's Founding Fathers were also believers in God and devotees of Enlightenment ideals. Their notion was that the best way to obtain eternal moral and scientific truth on the one hand and abiding peace and freedom on the other is through democratically governed debate, discovery and an open exchange of ideas.

The hope is that if we teach people to think critically for themselves, expose them to different perspectives and arm them with the latest information, we will maximize truth and unity.

Extreme forms of postmodernism that embody cultural, moral and cognitive relativism find the Founding Fathers' ideas quaint and naive. They deny that there is any such thing as objectivity and universal truth or morality; rather, there is only a competition of world views driven by the desire for power, wealth and emotional security. You can see how someone innocent of postmodern theory might reach the same conclusion flipping back and forth between, say, FOX News, CNN and PBS. Evangelicals use this play from the book of postmodernism.

For example, at a forum on intelligent design last year at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, the Rev. Dave Martin, senior pastor at the Evangelical Free Church of Hershey, Pa., said, "Teachers might go further than what is uncontested biology and, intentionally or not, indoctrinate children into a `naturalist, materialistic world view.' You can't teach without a world view. Metaphysical convictions are impossible to suppress."

Now, I agree with Pastor Martin that teachers should not be indoctrinating students with their world views. The difference between him and me is that I think such an indoctrination-free education is possible.

Second, unlike Pastor Martin and apparently all of popular culture as well, I believe the key to such an indoctrination-free education is not merely to present all opinions or positions on all subjects as if they are equally sound but to teach people how to think cogently, arm them with the best information available and then critically evaluate key perspectives.

Public education should not be the pedagogical equivalent of Crossfire, in which both sides are represented but nothing is learned, where no one is enlightened because the "conversation" is really a shouting match governed by sophistry and logical fallacies designed to convince and emotionally manipulate the potential convert. Yes, Virginia, facts exist.

After speaking with many on both sides of the intelligent design debate, my sense is that often what people really want is for public education to proselytize or parrot the various world views of the parents in a particular school district.

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