This past Sunday, my favorite advice columnist, The Ethicist (whose column appears in The New York Times), considered an intriguing question. A parent from Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote in, concerned that her daughter’s biology class had been asked to take a public action on climate change. The mother asked: “Is it ethical for the school to require students to speak publicly on a specific issue? Or even to give extra credit for doing so? Does the students’ right to free speech also give them the right not to speak publicly on this topic?”
Free speech issues aside, this was certainly an interesting discussion for us at NCSE. Where is the line between science education and science activism? If you understand the causes and consequences of climate change, how can you not act? How can you possibly teach students about climate change without encouraging action? If you fail to encourage them to act, won’t you leave them in a rather dismal emotional state, worrying that we are all doomed? On the other hand, what about the mother’s concerns? Should teachers require students to take public stands that they would not have taken on their own for whatever reason?
In his answer, The Ethicist wrote, “There are limits to what an academic assignment can require, and one of those limits is the degree to which it spills into the pupil’s nonacademic life. Extending an assignment into the public sphere is an infringement on that student’s right to define his or her public persona. The value of the assignment is not relevant.”
I completely agree. Although the teacher was well intentioned, there is no question that it was inappropriate for him or her to require students to take a public action on any political or social issue, even if it was based in the science. To be clear, students absolutely must learn the science, understand the causes, and know the potential solutions. How they act on that knowledge, though, is a personal decision that, for better or worse, cannot be dictated by an educator. The teacher’s role is to educate, not to proselytize.
But this is not where the conversation should end. There are many social and political issues, including climate change, that should be informed by good science, and scientists are often in the best position to speak from authority on a topic. Science does not exist in a vacuum, but so often we put it there when educating children. How then can we teach students to use science as a tool, in conjunction with other skills learned in school, to inform public policy and debate?
If this biology teacher wanted to teach students how to engage in civics, he or she could have showed the students examples of other times when science helped inform policy and solve public challenges. The teacher could have also buddied up with a social studies teacher to extend the lesson to understand how policy surrounding climate change is implemented nationally and internationally. The teacher could even have explained the many options available to them for action specifically on climate change. But requiring participation in political action was a step too far.
There are many opportunities for science educators to teach students about climate change and how they can act now to change our future. With the impacts of climate change already well underway, teaching students about the causes, impacts, and even mitigation and adaptation strategies is extremely important. The decision to act, though, is up to them.