Legislating the Science Curriculum

Mandatory equal time for climate change skepticism? A front-page story in The New York Times on moves by some state legislators has drawn over a thousand comments, among the more highly recommended by readers:

United States of Embarrassment! As China continues to grow and become the global power, American politicians are taking the country backwards.

Empires fall largely due to the structural and social problems within. We have only ourselves to blame for becoming a Banana Republic.

Speaking of empires, though, instruction in Marxist-Leninist philosophy is still mandatory in Chinese schools, even if members of the nation's Politburo, let alone the new generation of students, no longer believe in it. (See this 2007 article from the Los Angeles Times.)

Over fifty years ago, former Soviet students who had also been force-fed communist doctrine -- which for a while included Lysenkoism! -- shocked America with Sputnik, manned spacecraft, and nuclear weapons. As my colleague and former teacher Charles Gillispie once noted in The New York Times Book Review, how this was possible is a mystery, except that "the support of the state was even mightier than its grip."

Dogmatism may have even helped Russian education. The more poorly politics and the economy were managed, the more attractive science teaching and research, relatively if incompletely insulated, became for the most brilliant students. The high-school science magazine Kvant, founded in 1970, was outstanding. Emigrating former Soviet scientists were coveted by universities in the U.S., Israel, and other countries.

Legislative mandates can be used creatively. You can teach both sides of an issue while letting the strength of evidence speak for itself. It may not even matter if you teach only one side. Charles Darwin's own mentor, the brilliant Cambridge naturalist John Stevens Henslow, was an ordained Church of England cleric who believed firmly in the stability of species.

Conservatives and liberals are equally mistaken in believing that the schools have some magic leverage over issues that must be resolved elsewhere.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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