Critical Thinking in the Classroom *
I recently got acquainted with a young instructor who teaches science to seventh-graders at an evangelical school. He’s a graduate of Wheaton College and a recent convert to Catholicism. This affords him an interesting perspective on how evangelicals handle science in the classroom, in particular how the whole ‘teach the controversy’ approach trumpeted by Bible science types plays out in practice.
The text the school in question ordered for this young teacher’s class is Exploring Creation with General Science. The author, Jay L. Wile, is a young earth Biblical literalist with a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry. In terms of suggested experiments for kids, my teacher friend tells me that generally the book has a lot to recommend it: great ideas for simple experiments and so forth, and apparently it’s a favorite with homeschoolers. So far, so good.
But…inevitably the age of the earth has to be discussed. That is, catastrophism: the view of literalists that the earth is only a few thousand years old and much of what geologists have uncovered suggesting otherwise can be explained as the result of a series of cataclysmic events that happened over a very short time, to fit with a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Modern geologists take a uniformitarian view of the earth, and see the layer upon layer of different strata in the Earth’s mantle as evidence of the planet’s changes being gradual over billions of years.
According to my teacher friend, “Wile pushes catastrophism while ‘teaching the controversy.'” He writes, “I talked to the principal about my annoyance with the whole thing and he, being the cool guy that he is, is fine with my particular take on it (Old Earth/Evolution), but still thinks the controversy ought to be taught.
“So I’ve been doing research on uniformitarianism [and] catastrophism and realizing that the idea of putting these two theories in front of seventh graders and, A. expecting them to understand what is going on, much less B. make a real judgment between them, is just beyond absurd.
“Until seventh graders have a grounding of basic knowledge about standard geology, there’s no point in asking them to determine anything based on classroom presentations of ‘evidence’ culled from one simplistic textbook and a teacher who knows little about geology.”
[I’m trying to imagine a similar seventh grade class where the textbook gives an overview of A. The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and B. Bohm’s Non-local Hidden Variable Model –and expect seventh graders to be able to ‘weigh the evidence’ and make a judgment about it. Only Earth Science and evolution seem to bother literalists. But I digress.]
My correspondent adds, “As soon as I start looking at the various arguments, I realize that creation science, flood geology, Intelligent Design – all of that – makes no real attempt to engage with mainstream science. But, if they’re doing science at all, they need to be able to beat the scientists at their own game or there’s no point. So in other words, they’re not really arguing with scientists. They’re arguing with other Christians and using ‘science’ to bolster their argument: that the Bible requires a particular theology and hermeneutic. Which just means that Christians on the other side, if we want this debate to not be completely won by the loudmouths, have to come up with a compelling hermeneutic and theology.”
Not surprisingly, the problem makes his approach to class challenging.
“We’re making a timeline of the ages of the earth in class. I’ve been looking for a comparable catastrophist timeline explaining the same evidence (as uniformitarianism) and … not finding it.”
There are no shortage of Biblical videos to view for the kids as well. “The worst,” he writes, “is watching … and realizing that the guy could be arguing that ‘Hitler was bad’ and the non-sequiturs and equivocations would make you begin to question his case.
“The biggest issue here is how Wile sets up his science book – and, by the way, his attitude strikes me as completely ingenuous the entire time – so as to make it seem like he is presenting a fair case to be judged on the evidence.”
For example, Wile does a unit in which he attempts to establish, scientifically, the material historical integrity of part of the Bible.
“[He] assumes that that same integrity applies to all the different books and literature in the Bible,” writes the instructor, “and thus treats Genesis 1-11 as a legitimate historical source with evidence to be weighed in the balance together with radiometric dating, stratigraphy, index fossils, contintental drift, etc. Then he presents uniformitarianism and catastrophism, followed by a list of potential ‘problems’ with either side.
“At the end of which he concludes, ‘both uniformitarianism and catastrophism have difficulties. Regardless of which view you take, you will run into what seem to be unsolvable problems’ (Wile 209, emphasis author’s).”
“If I didn’t tend to trust these people since I grew up among them and know their basic sincerity, I would swear they were being actively disingenuous.”
Not surprisingly, evolution is considered a weakness of the uniformitarian view:
“So, which is it? Is there independent evidence for the process of evolution or not? Well, the short answer to this question is ‘no.’ You will learn more about evolution when you take biology. For right now, however, let’s look at what should be the main line of data that relates to evolution.” (Wile p. 210, emphasis author’s).
I did a little googling on the texbook author, Jay Wile, and it seems, like so many proponents of Biblical literalism, he peddles bad faith arguments against evolution. This, for example, comes from a sample lecture promo.
In this seminar, Dr. Jay L. Wile, a nuclear chemist, explores the complicated Creation Versus Evolution debate. He discusses Christian attempts to make the Genesis account compatible with the theory of evolution and shows how these attempts fail. The conclusion is that a literal interpretation of Genesis is completely incompatible with the theory of evolution. He then proceeds to show that this is not at all a problem for someone who is both a Christian and a scientist. He presents strong scientific evidence that supports a literal interpretation of Genesis and equally strong scientific evidence that discounts the theory of evolution. He discusses evolutionists’ attempts to explain away this data and how such attempts fail. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this seminar comes when Dr. Wile details some of the fantastic life forms on this planet whose existence can never be explained using the theory of evolution. Regardless of how science-oriented you are, this seminar will strengthen your faith and give you an even deeper appreciation for the marvelous Creation that God has given us.
Those evil evolutionists… again. What’s funny is this lecture is immediately preceded by one dedicated to ‘Critical thinking’.
One of the biggest failures of our public and private school systems is that they do not teach students how to think critically. In this seminar, Dr. Wile gives you specific suggestions as to how you can teach your child to think critically, regardless of the subject matter that the student is learning. You will learn how to help your student evaluate statements, look for hidden assumptions, find political/social agendas, and discover faulty logic. Although Dr. Wile’s area of interest is science, he will show you how critical thinking applies to all academic areas, as well as all facets of your life.
This narrow, defensive approach to science may seem fine at the grade school level and even high school level for home schoolers. But what happens when the kids who show a real aptitude for science and interest in pursuing a career… get to college– and they have to confront not just professors with working labs but fellow students– and the weak foundations of their Bible ‘science’ simply don’t stand up to scrutiny? How many of these kids will then turn on their faith and consider it all a pack of lies (as Einstein did and others) because their particular branch of Christianity has a deeply faulty attitude to the natural order?
* updated to reflect a couple of corrections.