Truth and Science in Louisiana

What is Truth?  The question is as old as Pilate, and still as troublesome.

As anti-creationist activist Barbara Forrest notes in a perceptive article in the Louisiana Coalition for Science blog, anti-evolutionists in that state have made a telling error in their reading of mainstream science education.

In a struggle to impose a two-model evolution/creation curriculum in Central, Louisiana, creationists misquoted the Louisiana Department of Education’s (LDOE’s) 1997 Louisiana Science Framework (LSF).  In that framework document (see page 12), the LDOE offered a carefully worded articulation of the mainstream vision of the nature of science.  As Forrest notes, the LDOE explicitly demanded that true science should be taught “as a human enterprise and a continuing process for extending understanding, instead of the ultimate, unalterable truth.”

When creationists of the Louisiana Family Forum crafted their argument for teaching both creationism and evolution as science, they misrepresented this statement.  The Louisiana Family Forum’s proposed resolution contained the following assertion:

“WHEREAS, the Louisiana Science Content Standards at page 12 indicate that science should be ‘presented as a . . . [ellipsis in the LFF document] continuing process for extending understanding of the ultimate, unalterable truth’(7);”.

As Forrest points out, there is a world of difference between what the Louisiana standards demand and what the LFF said the standards demand.  Forrest notes that this slip could be due either to dishonesty or carelessness.  True enough.

But I think this mistake also tells us a great deal about the yawning chasm that separates the two sides’ understandings of the nature of education.

For science educators such as Barbara Forrest, the notion that a state standards document would define science education as a quest for “ultimate, unalterable truth” seemed immediately, obviously bizarre and suspicious.  That is simply not the way mainstream science educators talk.  Indeed, the paragraph from which that line came says a great deal about mainstream understandings about education.

Here is that paragraph in full:

“The purpose of science education is not for students to memorize the ‘right’ answer, but for them to move along a learning continuum toward a deeper understanding of science concepts and processes.  Current research indicates that it is best for understanding to be constructed actively by the learner.  This learning style offers a new role for the science teacher as a facilitator of learning versus an imparter of knowledge.  Instruction should minimize rote learning and focus on in-depth understanding of major concepts and topics, with students actively exploring those ideas through activities they can relate to their own lives.  Students often work cooperatively in small groups to exchange and critique their own ideas, with the teacher facilitating discussion rather than providing answers.  Science is presented as a human enterprise and a continuing process for extending understanding, instead of the ultimate, unalterable truth.”

Now THAT is the way mainstream education folks talk!  Note the emphasis on teacher as facilitator, the role of student as an active constructor of knowledge.  Note the emphasis on cooperative learning and the de-emphasis on the traditional delivery of information from teacher to student.

This is how many mainstream education researchers understand the process of learning and teaching.  This is NOT the way most conservatives and traditionalists understand education.  Though I don’t know the LFF and certainly can’t speak for them, many conservatives and educational traditionalists have a very different understanding of the nature of education.  For many conservatives, education—whether it’s about evolution, the American Revolution, or any other topic—is precisely about transmitting “ultimate, unalterable truths” from one generation to the next.

So whether the Louisiana Family Forum made a mistake in reading the Louisiana science standards or whether the LFF deliberately misrepresented those standards, the LFF ended up articulating a vision of education much closer to the understandings of most American conservatives.  Education, in the conservative view, must be about “ultimate, unalterable truth” in order to have any meaning at all.



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