The Dilemma of Teaching Race in High-School Biology
The way science classes talk about—or gloss over—the science of human difference could risk reinforcing students’ misperceptions.
Last spring, Paul Strode gave an unusual survey to his advanced-biology students at Fairview High School in Boulder, Colorado. The first five questions were:
- Define as best you can: What is a racial group?
- Define as best you can: What is an ethnic group?
- Define as best you can: What is meant by the term genetic ancestry?
- True or False: There is too much overlap between racial groups to use a single biological trait (like skin color) to distinguish one racial group from another.
- True or False: When several traits are combined they can be used to distinguish one racial group from another.
The next day, Strode showed his students—all seniors—their aggregated results. On some questions, the students were mostly in agreement. More than 80 percent of them, for example, correctly marked question four as “true.” But other topics were muddier, and on several questions—including number five—the students split nearly 50–50. “They’re guessing,” Strode says. (For the record, the answer he says he was looking for on number five was “false.”)
Strode’s exercise is an anomaly. Most American biology textbooks and curricula don’t discuss race at all—nor do they grapple with the biology of sexual orientation or gender, for that matter. To some, these omissions seem appropriate. Early-20th-century biology textbooks, after all, were replete with ignorant racial and gender stereotyping and classifications purporting to be scientific—and some even extolled the virtues of racial purity. It would be hard to find such discussions in today’s biology classrooms and supporting materials.
But to a growing number of academics, that’s a problem, and the omissions represent glaring intellectual lacunae—a sort of sanitized approach to biology that ignores the political and cultural veins that have historically run through it. After all, the history of racial, sexual, and gender classification is very much a story of scientific debate. And biological concepts—and misperceptions—continue to exert profound influence on national conversations about diversity and human difference.
With these realities in mind, some educators, scientists, and sociologists are working to bring such discussions back into American biology classrooms and textbooks. Along the way, they’re criticizing common models of teaching—and raising questions about what, exactly, responsible biology teaching looks like during an age of resurgent scientific racism, bitter political struggles, and shifting notions of identity.
Race, in particular, has a troubling history in the American science curriculum. Early- and mid-20th-century American biology textbooks drew freely on racial pseudoscience, parceling up the world into discrete racial categories with very little regard for rigorous evidence—but plenty of recourse to tired stereotypes. “The existing human species has five varieties or races,” explains a 1913 high-school biology textbook published by Macmillan, “Caucasian, American Indian, Mongolian, Malay, [and] Ethiopian—each with certain peculiarities.”
One high-school textbook from 1936 devotes an entire chapter to the promise of eugenics. “As we have come to understand and apply the principles of heredity to the scientific breeding of plants and animals, there is a growing belief that these principles may be the solution to many of our social problems,” the chapter explains. One of the review questions asks students to respond to the following prompt: “Why should epileptic, insane, and feeble-minded persons be supported by the state and denied the right to marry?”
These kinds of texts can have an impact. Flagship textbooks are among the most consumed science texts in the world. Some sell millions of copies. They help determine coursework in tens of thousands of classrooms. Today, pitched battles over evolution and climate change in textbooks often make national news.
“Textbooks tend to be this kind of collection of official discourse in science,” says Jesse Bazzul, a social theorist at the University of Regina in Canada who studies science education. The books, he adds, “have this truth value in terms of scientific consensus, but they also have this truth value in terms of they’re usually legitimated by a state power.”
For American science textbooks, the tone toward eugenics did change after World War II. Shaken by Nazi atrocities, educators began to speak frankly about scientific racism and the risks of certain kinds of pseudoscience. “Their approach at that time was to say, ‘What we really have to do is just throw ourselves all in and really teach this topic right,’” says Ann Morning, a sociologist at New York University who has studied the history of racial representation in American science textbooks.
Analyzing texts from the post–World War II era, Morning says, it is clear that writers wanted to “really teach students that there’s this theory of superior races or master races, and so forth and so on. So they really took as their charge the responsibility of counteracting World War II Nazi ideology around race. They went all-in.”
But starting around the 1960s, Morning’s research suggests, American science-textbook writers began talking less about issues like race—though that’s not to say that subjects related to human difference don’t come up. Textbooks today go in-depth on human evolution, genetic diversity, and sex. They’re just unlikely to explicitly acknowledge that these biological experiences can intersect with politics and identities.
When mentions of racial categories do crop up, Morning and other scholars point out, they seem to focus on physiological difference—on the genetics of human skin color, for example, or on certain genetic disorders, such as sickle-cell anemia, that are often associated with particular racial groups. These are topics, Morning and other scholars argue, that without proper context may actually reinforce the misperception that race has deep biological roots.
There’s some fresh evidence to back up these concerns. A few years ago, the education researcher Brian Donovan, then a graduate student at Stanford University, began running randomized trials on groups of middle and high schoolers in the Bay Area. Donovan would give the students a text about sickle-cell disease, explaining that the sickle-cell gene can confer resistance to malaria, but also leave some people with debilitating health problems.
Some students would receive a text that, following the conventions of many biology textbooks today, simply stated that sickle cell is more common among African Americans. Donovan would give the other group a similar passage, but with a crucial difference: This text would explain, accurately, that sickle cell is more common in people with ancestors from historically malarial areas, including sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and southern Europe. But it would leave out explicit mention of racial categories.
Later, Donovan would give all the students a series of questions designed to judge whether or not they believed race to be a deeply rooted biological fact, as opposed to a largely social construct. Again and again, he has found that students who are given the less complete text are more likely to describe race in fixed, genetic terms on the evaluation.
The difference between the texts that Donovan has given students, of course, is not one of facts, but of framing—do you highlight race as the most salient factor in sickle cell, or something else? The worry is that, by pairing a biological category (like sickle cell) with a social construction (like race), teachers inadvertently push students to think of race as a deep biological fact, not a social construct.
Donovan, who now works at BSCS Science Learning, an influential science-education nonprofit, is quick to point out that these are preliminary results. But his work raises some of the same questions as Morning’s: What happens when biology texts only mention race in the context of genetic difference? And can the way we teach the science of human difference actually shape students’ perceptions of race?
Teachers seem to be curious about issues like this—Donovan has presented at biology-teacher conferences, and he has collaborated with some teachers, including Strode. The National Science Foundation recently gave him and a collaborator a $900,000 grant for “exploring how knowledge of genetic variation and causation affects racial bias among adolescents.” When he recently put out a call for high-school classrooms to take part in an upcoming study, around 150 teachers asked to be involved. “People want to do it,” he says. “But they just don’t know how to do it.”
Meanwhile, textbook authors are cautious. “When solid research has something to say about topics like race, gender, and sexuality, I will try to touch on it if I can tie it directly to something that students will be able to understand based on their reading in the book,” said Mariëlle Hoefnagels, a biologist at the University of Oklahoma and the author of a textbook series published by McGraw-Hill Education, in an email to Undark.
She highlighted an essay in one of her books on skin color. “That essay explores the selective value of light pigmentation in low-UV regions and dark pigmentation in high-UV regions, without mentioning the word ‘race’ at all,” she wrote.
Ken Miller, a biology professor at Brown University and a co-author, with Joseph Levine, of Prentice Hall’s biology-textbook line, similarly said that the topic of race is not even mentioned in their textbook. “We have a very extensive section on human evolution and human origins,” he said. “We talk about the out-of-Africa model for the diversification of the human species … But we do not specifically go into anything that could be recognized as race.”
Miller and Levine are influential: Since 1990, they have sold more than 4 million books, and their publisher estimates that 40 percent of high schoolers in the United States use their books at some point. Over the years, Miller says, he and Levine have debated whether to touch on issues of identity. They have considered talking about the biology of sexual orientation, for example, but avoided doing so. One reason, Miller said, “is that there isn’t a science curriculum anywhere in this country that calls for the teaching of those subjects in a biology course.” And, he said, the science of sexuality is far from settled.
The two have considered talking more about the biology of racial difference, too. “Kids do have those kinds of questions. And Joe and I have asked ourselves, should we go into what little we know—it still is very little—what little we know about the genetics of race in our textbook? And we basically decided, no, race is still a social construction, it’s not a biological thing.”
Miller and Levine have dealt with political pushback—particularly given that their books are unequivocal about the scientific consensus on topics such as human evolution and climate change. “Joe and I don’t think of ourselves as timid,” Miller said. “But to be perfectly honest, in terms of wading into the idea of gender identification, differences between racial groups, and so forth, we regard those as potential firestorms, if we were to go there.”
For Morning, that’s not good enough. Pretending that racialized ideas do not exist, or dismissing them as nonscientific concerns, will not make these issues go away—nor will it make students’ misperceptions about the biology of race disappear. “I would really love to see textbooks teaching on questions—or really students’ assumptions—about race,” Morning says, “and then thinking about how they can improve students’ assumptions about human biology.”
That’s especially pressing, she argues, at a time when personal genetic testing and other technological developments are leading to fresh conversations about genetics and ancestry. “There has been this return to claims about biology and race that somebody has to address,” she said. “And so if people like Ken Miller aren’t doing it, that’s a real loss, I think.”
For teachers hoping to tackle these topics, some curricular resources do exist. Both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Anthropological Association have developed teaching guides for talking about race in the science classroom. And other instructors are crafting materials on their own. When she first started teaching undergraduates, Amelia Hubbard would slip a slide into her lectures explaining to students that race is a social construction, not a biological category.
Today, as a professor at Wright State University, a unit on the biology of race, gender, and sexual orientation occupies a full three weeks of her semester-long Introduction to Biological Anthropology course. Through readings and small-group discussions, her students deal directly with the science and politics of hot-button identity topics.
Hubbard has begun sharing curricular materials and lessons with biology teachers around the country. In fact, the quiz that Strode gave his high schoolers was modeled on one of her teaching tools.
Strode, meanwhile, has taught high schoolers for more than 20 years, but he didn’t start broaching these topics until two years ago. Looking back, he worries that he taught about human genetics and traits in a simplistic way. “I may not have been promoting [racially charged ideas],” he says now. “But what I certainly wasn’t doing was removing those biases for students.”
Learning to teach about the topic, he says, has been a process. “I have been trying to become more educated on it, and more sophisticated about it, so I can present it to my students in a way that they can understand it. Because they have all kinds of misconceptions,” Strode said.
To some, talking about race and racism in the science classroom may seem too political for a biology class. But to others, it’s essential. At stake here, perhaps, is not just a question of how to teach human biology, but about what science classes are for. How much should teachers talk about the social dimensions of scientific ideas?
Some of her colleagues, Hubbard says, are skeptical that these topics should take up so much room in her class. But feedback from students has been warm.
“The feedback that I get, informally and formally, is that ‘this is something I thought I knew,’ or ‘I had no idea, it blew my mind,’” she said. “‘And thinking about it, I wish everybody could learn about this stuff.’”