Great news for all of us in sunny Binghamton! Professor Michael Berkman of Penn State has agreed to come up for a talk about his work. It is scheduled for March 30, 2015, so everyone has plenty of advance warning. Clear your calendars.
Professor Berkman’s talk will be part of the fantastic Monday seminar series of our Evolutionary Studies Program (EvoS). The brainchild of evolution maven David Sloan Wilson, EvoS makes this campus a wonderfully stimulating place to work. I’ve had the chance to talk to the assembled multitudes, and the EvoS program has brought in a steady stream of world-class evolution experts from all fields.
Those who follow the evolution/creation controversies may know Professor Berkman best for his recent-ish co-authored book, Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
The centerpiece of that book—and the part that attracted the most attention—was a survey of high-school science teachers. Berkman and his co-author Eric Plutzer found that a sizable minority (28%) of science teachers taught evolution. Another small minority (13%) taught creationism as science. But a large middle—roughly sixty percent—muddled through. This middle group either taught both, or neither, or a watered down mainstream “science” that left plenty of intellectual room for creationism.
But less noticed and more momentous was their argument that teachers make the most difference in what gets taught. And teachers tend to fit in with their communities. When we hear that large percentages of Americans agree with a recent creation of humanity, we might think at first that those people are mixed in with the rest of us. But far more likely is that such folks cluster geographically. In other words, in some towns, most of the residents are creationists. In those locales, teachers will teach what their community wants. Not out of some sinister oppressive fundamentalist machinations, but much more simply because the teachers hold those same beliefs.
As Berkman and Plutzer argued, teachers function as “street-level bureaucrats.” They do not simply crank out whatever ideas are enshrined in textbooks and state standards. Rather, teachers exert profound influence on the kinds of ideas students hear, and the ways those ideas are presented. In Berkman’s and Plutzer’s words, “not only do personal beliefs influence instruction, they also have a stronger impact than any other factor we have examined” (page 186).
As Berkman and Plutzer put it, the best way to understand the evolution/creation fight is not as a question of religion or science. Rather, at heart, this is “a political struggle over who decides, a question central to democratic politics” (page 31).
So Monday, March 30 should be an interesting evening. The EvoS crowd usually runs toward the biologic and away from the politic. Many of the undergraduate students are biology majors and many of the faculty and community participants cluster in the hard sciences. Such folks sometimes wince at any attempt to understand evolution/creation as a cultural or political issue. Instead, some hard scientists tend to see the issue as black and white: Evolution is science, creationism is not.
I’m not sure what Professor Berkman will discuss in his talk, but I’m counting the days til then. These talks are open to the public and free; no registration is required. I’ll post details of the specific time and location as we figure them out. For those who can’t make it to our scenic but out-of-the-way campus, EvoS usually posts the audio of these talks after a few days.
Hope to see you there!