Evolution and the acquisition of knowledge

March 29, 2009

This is sort of a piggyback on the last post in the sense that I’m posting again on evolution; it is actually a mere coincidence that I would write some musings on evolution and cognitive shortcuts (especially after a long break), only to be confronted by the idea of evolution yet again the following day in the last place I would generally hope to hear about it: my church.

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On cognitive shortcuts

March 28, 2009

Okay, the hiatus is over – sort of. This won’t indicate any sort of regular posting, but I have a subject that I think fits best under this banner rather that my Docere Est Discere blog (even though it deals in a very broad sense with education).

In my interim as a student teacher – which is coming to a close in the next few weeks – I have tried to stay apprised of what is happening with the blogs that I have been following for quite some time (many of which are on this site’s blogroll). One of those which I have come to enjoy greatly is Ed Brayton’s Dispatches from the Culture Wars, which I find interesting and enlightening on a number of topics (despite disagreeing personally with Brayton on a number of matters).

Recently, Brayton wrote about Chris Mooney ripping George Will apart for his uninformed and flawed piece on global warming in the Washington Post (both pieces were printed in the Post, actually), and in discussing the issue, he brought up the idea of cognitive shortcuts:

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A new writing space

February 2, 2008

I am thrilled to have created a new blog to take on the issues of teaching, the English language, and teaching English. I am especially thrilled that no one took the name, either: Docere Est Discere. For you non-Latinophiles, that means “To teach is to learn,” and that is my motto as I work through issues about my philosophy of teaching/learning and how I will think about teaching the English language as I move toward the end of my education program and into my waiting vocation.

The nice thing about this is that I can now separate what already felt fairly separate to me before: my philosophy and theological writings for which this blog was initially created, and the posts about teaching and language. So you will see less of me writing about language (unless it is concerning rhetoric in argument) and education. If you actually liked those writings better, then come on over and see what I’m writing about on those topics. For your convenience, I have even placed an RSS link in the sidebar, so recent posts on Docere will display here at TCC (and vice versa over there).

Happy learning!

On evolution: An open question

January 31, 2008

Every so often, I hear something that makes me go, “Huh?” As a fairly non-traditional college student in a traditional program at a small liberal arts university, this happens more frequently than I would like to admit.

Such was the case in one of my education courses earlier today. A biology ed major was talking about the idea of sending out a newsletter at the beginning of the school year (as a future teacher, of course), and (I can only presume he expects to teach high school biology rather than a middle school course like life science) he said that he would explicitly tell parents in the newsletter that he plans to teach evolution and exactly why he feels such.* This isn’t bad in itself, but the way he delivered it was fiery in his fervor – as if he had something to prove. Moreover, he said that the reason he felt compelled to do so is because evolution is necessary to understanding anything in biology.

Now, I’ve not been secretive about my views on evolution, particularly that I do not doubt that macro/microevolution has happened, nor do I doubt common descent. But I am curious – why is the understanding of evolution so vital to understanding literally anything in biology? I took biology as a freshman in high school, and I’d like to think that my understanding of the subject wasn’t hindered by the fact that we didn’t cover any evolutionary theory in the course. (It should be noted that the teacher wouldn’t have shied away from the topic on her own principles – she was/is a staunch atheist and also affirms the truth of modern evolutionary theory.)

So here’s my open question: If, as [edit: Dobzhansky’s] infamous dictum goes, “nothing makes sense in biology except in light of evolution,” what makes this claim true? Note here that I’m not asking for a rationale of why evolution should be studied in the biology classroom – clearly, if it’s good science, it belongs there – but rather why evolution is indispensable in the study of biology. If it’s not vital to the study, that doesn’t mean it should be discarded, but it seems to me that the claim might just be hyperbolically made out of a knee-jerk reaction to those who openly reject it (i.e. creationists), as I suspect is the case with this future biology teacher. If so, then that is worth reflecting on for those who are so sorely tempted to react similarly.

*What occurred to me immediately is that this teaching candidate might have a shock coming depending on the district he gets hired in – evolution might not be a standard part of the curriculum for the courses he gets as a first year teacher.

Edit (2/1): I also found the way he expressed his fervor at telling parents that they could not allow their children to opt out to be a little counter-intuitive – teachers shouldn’t be so openly antagonistic at some unknown set of parents who might be not be totally on board with evolution because it only sets them up for problems. It makes me wonder what would happen if I taught freshman English and sent a note home, “We’re reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and if you don’t like it, tough.” Granted, there is a difference between science and English in this regard, but the attitude is equally detrimental to good parent-teacher relations, possibly even among parents who wouldn’t have a problem with their child being taught evolution.

On public education, “exit strategies,” and Christian isolationism

December 29, 2007

As mentioned on previous occasions, I am an education major, and even were that not my professed career choice, I would still have a great interest in the subject. Education, now more than ever, is a vital part of living in a world where information abounds, as does misinformation, and so our up-and-coming children must be prepared to live in such a world by knowing sound principles of reasoning and discernment. In some ways, the task of educating has grown more difficult; in others, much easier. Technology is both a blessing and a curse, and cultural changes pose new difficulties, although children are largely the same as they’ve always been. (As Topper Steinman says, “Kids are who they are; they know what they know; they bring what they bring.”)

What is always curious to me, though, is the underlying theme of one significant change to education in the past thirty years: parental interactions with teachers. Parents no longer work with teachers, trusting in their shared goal of making the child/student into a well-adjusted member of society, but instead work largely against teachers, fighting tooth and nail to get resources for their child, even to the detriment of other students. (This is stated most humorously and cogently in the book How to Handle Difficult Parents: A Teacher’s Survival Guide.) In many ways, unfortunately, Christians seem to exemplify much of what (in my opinion) is wrong with the thinking of parents today.

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“Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to know that way?”

December 14, 2007

Just added to the blogroll is the blog of Baylor philo prof Alexander Pruss, who recently posted an incredibly interesting entry with the name Epistemic norms are a species of moral norms. As a teacher, I can appreciate the spirit of this post.

Quick summary: There is something about imperatives directed at how we acquire reliable knowledge that puts them in the category of moral norms. When I say (to use one of Pruss’ examples), “Don’t accept the testimony of unreliable witnesses,” I must be giving you that imperative for a reason or it is relatively useless (like Pruss’ conditional “If you don’t raise your right arm, at most one of your arms will be raised”). The reason that underlies epistemic imperatives is “Knowledge is good to have,” and that is at base a moral injunction.

In the comments, it is pointed out to Pruss that this idea of knowledge being at least intrinsically good (often with obvious extrinsic goods) somewhat begs the question. But I think that this argument is at least highly plausible for the average person because knowledge is seen as something worth having for the sake of having it. For the person who does not accept this, it will be a hard argument to win because the idea is somewhat based on values as well as pragmatic considerations (e.g. it’s been much better for society to have more knowledge about the universe because it has helped us find better ways to live).

This idea has profound implications for education. For one, I feel very strongly that educators need to value knowledge and learning (at base knowledge acquisition, which is not limited to mere propositional fact). The loss of that value is in my estimation the reason for declining attitudes toward liberal education, and teachers ought to promote learning of any kind, whether it is stats from a baseball card, how to change a tire, or the names and DNA codon arrangements of amino acids. Secondly, it is the loss of this value that presents such a dramatic obstacles even for teachers who do value education as intrinsically valuable; for the students must also share that value. To that end, one might say that a teacher’s primary goal is as value-inculcator: to cultivate prosperous students as well as well-adjusted citizens and individuals.

What I am setting forth is essentially a humanistic requisite for teachers: If you want to be a good teacher, you must do your best to model and espouse sound moral values. Being a good person isn’t just about doing your part for society and your community; it is also about doing your part for yourself and doing everything you can to learn about the world we live in. Everything else about teaching is secondary, from lesson planning to discipline. If you don’t try to convince your students to love learning, to get a test of knowledge and make them hunger for it the rest of their lives, then there is a significant part of the job that you simply haven’t gotten. Who knows? Maybe this attitude really would transform the way our students think, act, and live.

Reflections on teaching

November 2, 2007

I have mentioned previously here that I am in a secondary education program, and the particular program at the university I attend includes a block of classes that incorporates an internship during classroom hours in a school functioning in a pseudo-teaching capacity. Because I felt oddly drawn to it (and because I’m seeking special certification), I requested to be placed in a middle school/junior high environment. The experience has been interesting to say the least. That’s not to say it’s been bad; in fact, it has been exceptionally good given the fact that I’ve been placed in an inner-city school with a high percentage of low socioeconomic students (80-90% are on free or reduced lunch) in a district with a high dropout rate (something like 50%) in an economically depressed area with a disproportionately high amount of crime, especially murder, for the population. I attribute a large portion of that to placement with a skilled language arts teacher (who is, incidentally, a Christian and a pastor’s wife) who the students respect and (I think genuinely) love.

But even this relatively ideal environment is not perfect, and I was confronted with something that I did not expect to find in a middle school.

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