Public school students should be taught science in their science classes. I think that’s particularly true in the case of gifted children, from whose ranks we can expect the next generation of scientists to emerge. So it’s troubling when a principal more attuned to avoiding confrontations with Christian fundamentalist parents than with serving the educational needs of his students tells a teacher he can’t teach Darwin, for fear it might offend.
Still, I realize that that sort of thing happens. It happens in places like Texas and Arkansas. But thanks to Steven Novella writing at Neurologica, I’ve learned that it also happens in places like Connecticut: Mark Tangarone: Weston TAG teacher leaves over evolution flap.
The whole story is pretty interesting. But the crucial piece of evidence for cutting through the he-said/he-said of the Weston schools superintendent (who says this is a “personnel matter” involving a “disgruntled employee” and has nothing to do with the teaching of evolution) and the teacher who is now resigning (who says he’s leaving because he was ordered to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work from his gifted students’ science curriculum), is an email that the teacher received in late 2008 from his then-principal, which reads as follows:
While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life. I could anticipate that a number of our parents might object to this topic as part of a TAG project, and further, parents who would object if evolution was part of a presentation by a student to students who do not participate in the TAG program.
Evolution touches on a core belief — Do we share common ancestry with other living organisms? What does it mean to be a human being? I don’t believe that this core belief is one in which you want to debate with children or their parents, and I know personally that I would be challenged in leading a 10-year-old through this sort of discussion while maintaining the appropriate sensitivity to a family’s religious beliefs or traditions.
In short, evolution is a topic that is not age appropriate, is not part of our existing curriculum, is not part of the state frameworks at this point in a student’s education, nor a topic in which you have particular expertise. For all of these reasons, the TAG topics need to be altered this year to eliminate the teaching of Darwin’s work and the theory of evolution.
Oy. The principal who sent that email, Mark Ribbens, apparently has a PhD, since he’s referred to as “Dr.” Ribbens in the news article. I wonder what his doctorate was in.
Update: I was wrong; on further investigation he turns out to have an Ed.D. Not that I’m saying there’s something wrong with that. But I should have realized.
He’s still a principal, but now he’s principal for a part-time performing arts magnet school. I’m thinking that might be a better pedagogical niche for him than supervising the science education of gifted middle schoolers. Anyway, if you’d like to share your philosophical dissatisfaction with Dr. Ribbens’ views on the teaching of evolution, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call him at (203) 365-8851.
I just emailed him as follows (with a CC: to the head of his current school’s parents association, on the theory that Ribbens might be more sensitive to her views than to mine):
I was disturbed to read the article in the Weston Forum quoting your email to Mark Tangarone from a few years ago, in which you forbade him to teach evolution to students in the TAG program at Weston Intermediate. See:
I realize that there probably are (at least) two sides to this matter, and that your email may have been misquoted or taken out of context. But if the quoted statements are accurate, then I encourage you to be more careful in the future when deciding that the religious sensitivities of a subset of parents are sufficient reason to prevent your students from receiving age-appropriate science instruction.
Particularly troubling to me was the following line from your email: “While evolution is a robust scientific theory, it is a philosophically unsatisfactory explanation for the diversity of life.” I’m curious what you mean by that. In what sense do you believe the theory of evolution to be philosophically unsatisfying?
The question of whether or not we share common ancestry with other living organisms is not just “a core belief,” as you describe it in your email. It is a fact, one that has been established as thoroughly as it is possible for scientific investigation to establish such things. It forms the conceptual basis of the bulk of modern medical and biological science. To intervene with a science teacher to prevent middle school students from learning that fact strikes me as profoundly misguided.
I realize that your current position as principal of a part-time performing arts magnet school limits your influence on curriculum decisions regarding science, and speaking frankly as the parent of a school-aged child, I think that’s probably for the best. But I hope you will think about this issue more carefully should you find yourself in a position to make similar decisions in the future.
So there it is: My “someone is wrong on the Internet!” moment for the day.