Under the newly approved science standards, Minnesota's youngest students will be expected to understand that biological populations change over time. Students will need to know that many organisms, such as dinosaurs, used to live on earth but are now extinct. This understanding of basic science can't come soon enough.
A suburban Twin Cities elementary school invited me to speak to its students recently about my work. I have written several children's books, including a science book about our intimate connection to earth and life's history. This book recently won the Minnesota Book Award for children's nonfiction. The school agreed to prepare for my visit by reading and discussing my books with the students.
The day before my presentation, the school sent me an e-mail. The faculty and the principal had discussed whether it was a good idea to share a book about evolution in their school and they decided that without much more in-depth discussion, it was not. They hadn't shared my evolution book with the students, and they preferred that I not share it either. Later, on the phone, I learned that parents with certain religious beliefs would object to the presentation of this book. The school was asking me to censor myself, but the idea didn't much appeal to me. I knew I would do a disservice to myself and other writers by agreeing to this surprise, last-minute request.
What if parents had come to this same school arguing that the earth was the center of the universe? Teachers, well familiar with the scientific evidence, would have continued teaching their students the facts: the earth is not the center of the universe and here's the evidence for that position. Even Pope John Paul II, who must be as devout as any Christian, accepts the idea that life has evolved. Millions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims have a concept of God that is large enough to include the process of evolution. But I was asked not to discuss this fascinating subject in a Minnesota school. Many other elementary schools avoid it, too. Some teachers tell me they wouldn't dare teach evolution. A southern Minnesota educator warned me in hushed tones that her town was pretty religious. I hear the word "touchy" all the time.
This widespread timidity comes, in large part, from ignorance. Elementary teachers reflect the general population: They don't know much about evolution. If they did, they would have captive audiences. They could tell their students that we share 98% of our genes with our closest relatives, chimpanzees. They could ask: Is it the remaining 2% that makes us wear platform shoes and dye our hair purple? What child would not be intrigued by that discussion?
While we wait for the new science standards to force teachers to bone up, here is a brief biology lesson: Elementary teachers have backbones, inherited from the earliest fish in ancient seas. Teachers should use their backbones to stand tall and teach basic science. Tell the kids who object that they don't have to accept it, but they do have to understand it to graduate. Teach students about the wide range of creation stories, too, but do it during social studies.
Teachers have lungs, also inherited from early fish. They should use their lungs, take a deep breath and repeat: Evolution is not just one explanation for the diversity of life; it's the scientific explanation. Evolution is not a belief system that you take on faith; you examine the evidence for it and accept it or not. Teachers have legs and feet, inherited from early amphibians. Teachers should use their legs and feet to politely escort anyone who protests the teaching of basic science to the front door. And finally, elementary teachers have large brains, inherited from the earliest hominins. They should use those great brains to read more and learn more about evolution. When a parent comes in arguing that life hasn't changed over time, these informed teachers can continue teaching the facts: life has indeed evolved, and here’s the ample evidence for that position.
Knowledge is power and elementary teachers need more of both.
[Originally published in the St Paul Pioneer-Press 2004 Jun 1 and reprinted with permission.]