Dump the big bang, bring on the blue ox

Kansas isn't going far enough with changes to its science curriculum

Published October 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

As we all know by now, the Kansas Board of Education has voted to drop evolution and the big bang from its mandatory science curriculum. The expectation, of course, is that many schools will stop teaching these subjects since they are no longer on the standard exams. The quasi-reasonable justification for leaving these important facts out of science education is that nobody was there to witness them.

I heard a supporter of this move argue on the radio that students should be given various interpretations of the origin of life and of the universe, regardless of the scientific consensus, and then be allowed to come to their own conclusions on the subject.

There's an idea. In fact, it occurs to me that Kansas isn't going far enough in applying this new approach just to evolution and the big bang. After all, very little in the ordinary curriculum is completely uncontroversial, accepted as truth by everyone who cares, and supported by eyewitness testimony.

So, go further, folks. Go far.

History and geology could give Paul Bunyan and Babe the blue ox equal time with the more conventional narratives of westward expansion -- it doesn't matter that some people will claim that it's only a "tall tale," because they weren't there to prove that Paul Bunyan didn't carve out the Grand Canyon and build the Rocky Mountains.

There's more to biology than evolution, of course. For example, the germ theory of disease is not universally accepted. Christian Scientists believe that disease is a matter of incorrect thinking, and can be overcome by the right worldview. Equal time is in order here. In fact, we probably need to make room for the related idea that disease is a sign of having lived an immoral life (though we may have to tread carefully when it comes to divine punishment, since identification of the punishing deity could lead to charges of bias).

Obviously, the idea of standardized spelling has to be questioned. President Andrew Jackson pointed out that it's a poor mind that can think of only one way to spell a word. Indeed, the way we spell is based on a mere theory, an agreement, and there are a number of equally valid theories out there. Students should be taught British as well as American spelling, and encouraged to choose whichever they think makes more sense.

Also, those students who prefer to spell phonetically -- who point out, for example, that "Missouri" isn't pronounced the way it's spelled -- should be encouraged in their creativity and independence of mind. Granted, this might make it a little more difficult for Kansas students to cope in the larger world outside the Kansas school system, but if we can afford that risk in biology for the sake of intellectual freedom, we certainly can afford it in reading.

Inquisitive students may, of course, have their own opinions on geography. Many a bright youth might ask how we know that a place like Tokyo really exists. Teachers should be prepared to bring in eyewitnesses who have actually visited Tokyo, or accept that their students have the right to deny the existence of such a place. After all, Japan is as much a matter of opinion as spelling or evolution.

I met someone once who denied the existence of Wyoming, insisting it was a plot by cartographers to conceal the fact that there is a gap on the Earth where Wyoming is alleged to be. The evidence, he maintained, was simple and incontrovertible -- he had never met anyone from Wyoming. He concluded, logically enough, that if he had never met anybody from Wyoming, that was because there is nobody from Wyoming, and that meant there is no Wyoming. Let's invite him into the Kansas schools! He can explain what is not located where the map says "Wyoming," and what this means for geology, history, physics and the interstate highway system.

Gym class would be totally revolutionized, of course. Nobody can deny that the rules of games are arbitrary and thus subject to change. Baseball, soccer, or tag -- sports are as they are because we want them that way. Right now, the teacher picks the rules, but why should they have that sort of arbitrary power when nobody else gets a vote? If someone wants five strikes to an out, so be it. If they want to require all players to bat left-handed while singing "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," why not? They should have the opportunity to make the rules, at least until the next person comes along and claims that baseball is played with a tennis racket and that the base-runner gets an extra point for tackling the shortstop.

The kids may get a little confused when they go see the Royals play, but it'll be well worth it. Think of the exercise their imaginations will get in school every day. Finding the hidden base while doing the hokey pokey has to be more fun than waiting patiently to see if anyone is ever going to hit a ball into left field. In a few years, the new sports resulting from this creative fervor will be recognized at the Olympic Games, where Kansans will take all the medals.

In the interest of sanity -- and gravity -- there will have to be a few concessions to conventional schooling in the new system. School buses probably will still keep a regular schedule, and even the most ardent kindergarten students won't be able to make their blocks float in mid-air, even if they believe that castles should float and toy airplanes should really fly.

I, for one, look forward to the modified Kansas curriculum with delight and curiosity. At last, education for the open-minded.

By Vicki Rosenzweig

Vicki Rosenzweig is a freelance writer in New York.

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